Meet musher Hanna Lyrek, the Iditarod rookie who’s racing closest to the front of the pack

A musher with dogs
Iditarod rookie Hanna Lyrek in Galena on Saturday. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

GALENA — Hanna Lyrek wore a handknit wool hat with dog designs and a sweater her friends made her as she put booties on her dogs in Galena Saturday afternoon, preparing to head to the next checkpoint.

Her face was red from days on the trail, racing sometimes into heavy snow and strong headwinds and others times into bright sunshine. She could hardly remember where she was. 

“Uhhh…where are we? Are we in Galena?” she asked. 

While she’s a newbie to the Iditarod, Lyrek has already proven her mettle in long-distance dog mushing. At age 19, she won the 2019 600-kilometer Finnmarksløpet, one of the biggest races in Europe. The year before, she completed the 1,000-kilometer version of the race as an 18 year old. 

Now, Lyrek is 22, more than halfway through her first Iditarod and is the rookie closest to the front, setting her up to win this year’s Rookie of the Year award.

She said the Iditarod has been challenging. The subzero temperatures she encountered on the Yukon River the day before were something she hadn’t experienced in Norway, she said. 

Also, she said, normally she would kick or run behind her sled, but the fast trail made that futile. Instead, she did exercises to stay warm through the night and morning. 

“Probably looked weird,” she said. 

An aerial shot of a dog team in orange jackets
Hanna Lyrek and her dog team race out of Galena on Saturday. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

She said a run through the snowless area into Nikolai, known as the Farewell Burn, was also tough.

But overall, she said, her first Iditarod has been pretty good.

Before the race, she consulted with fellow Norwegians Joar Leifseth Ulsom and Thomas Waerner, both Iditarod champions, about the trail. She remembered asking them how bad the twisty and steep Dalzell Gorge would be, but found it to be relatively straightforward.

“That was not bad at all,” she said. 

Lyrek is also on a racing team, The QRILL Pet Mushing Team, with Leifseth Ulsom and Waerner, plus five-time Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey. It bills itself as the “world´s first professional long-distance dog sled team, with some of the best mushers in the world.”

RELATED: Trailing in Iditarod as teams hit coast, Dallas Seavey plans strategy to catch Brent Sass

Mushing runs in Lyrek’s family. Her dad, Don Lyrek, and her mom, Trine, are both Iditarod finishers who met through mushing. He is American. Her mom is Norwegian. Both will meet her in Nome.

So far, she said, she hasn’t texted them, even though she has an inReach satellite phone. 

“I saw my dad on the trail at a checkpoint, but I haven’t talked to them,” she said. “I’m really enjoying myself.”

Lyrek lived in Alaska until she was 5 years old. Then she moved to Alta, Norway with her family, where she still lives today. She helps with a sled dog guiding business there. She said she played competitive handball when she was younger, and one of her main Iditarod leaders, Koren, is named after a star Norwegian player. 

She said she tried to go to college in Alta, but she withdrew after less than a year because she was too busy taking care of her dogs.

“It was just too much to do when you wanna do well in mushing, and I’m pretty dedicated and spend all my time with the dogs,” she said. 

She’s forged a bond with her dogs, despite a nearly two-year pandemic related hiatus on dog racing in Norway. She calls them her “corona team” due to their inexperience around racing.

For now, Lyrek said, she’s not thinking about the competition for Rookie of the Year. 

“It’s such a long way to go and I really, just, I want to finish,” she said.

But she’s got her sights set on the future.

“Hopefully I can be doing long races and be even more competitive as I get older and more experienced,” she said.

As for winning the Iditarod someday – she says maybe. 

“I don’t know,” she said. “If I have the opportunity just to do it again, that’d be pretty cool.” 

For more Iditarod coverage check out alaskapublic.org/Iditarod.

This story has been updated to add information that Lyrek’s mother Trine, was also an Iditarod finisher.

Previous articleDallas Seavey says ‘this is where I want to be’ as he chases Brent Sass
Next articleIditapod bonus: Hanna Lyrek interview with Lex Treinen
Lex Treinen covers culture, homelessness, politics and corrections for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at ltreinen@alaskapublic.org.