This article was originally published in the Spring 2020 edition of Centrepiece.
Iditarod. The name conjures images like no other sporting event: blinding white terrain, icicles knotting ruddy-faced mushers’ eyebrows, silver-eyed dogs lunging frantically into a vast unknown.
Basically, crazy people charging headlong into challenging horizons. The perfect place for a Centre grad, right?
The word is Ingalik Indian for “distant place.” The Iditarod race across Alaska couldn’t be much farther from where Louisville native Rob Urbach ’85 began his career in sports business management. After earning a Centre degree in psychobiology—and competing as a nationally recognized tennis, swimming, and cross-country athlete who eventually created the Centre Triathlon—he moved to Philadelphia to earn an M.B.A. at the Wharton School of Business.
Next were executive vice president positions at premier sports and entertainment firms such as SFX and Octagon, where he oversaw international marathon, tennis, and golf events and soccer’s 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
A highly decorated “Ironman” himself, Urbach moved to Colorado in 2011 to become CEO of USA Triathlon, where he founded the NCAA triathlon program, helped make possible the first USA triathlon Olympic gold at Rio, and launched the Paralympics program that, also in Rio, had the highest medal count of any country.
But it was an encounter with a loser, not a winner, that would ultimately lead Urbach even farther West to his biggest challenge yet.
“Twenty years ago, I was flying to Alaska to ski, and Susan Lucci was sitting across the aisle,” says Urbach. “We got to talking [and I learned] she was going to be leading the Iditarod’s ceremonial start.”
Okay, he wasn’t totally familiar with the beloved “Erica Kane” of All My Children—possibly better known for losing the daytime television Outstanding Lead Actress Emmy 18 times—but her enthusiasm for the rugged dogsled race intrigued him.
When the Iditarod position opened up in 2019, Urbach won it. (Susan Lucci also won, finally, in 1999.)
With roots in the 1925 “Serum Run” in which mushers carried life-saving medicine along the Iditarod Trail from Seward to diphtheria-stricken Nome, the race’s larger mission today is to preserve the sled-dog culture that defined Alaska for centuries before technology and snow mobiles. Every village used sled dogs for transportation, subsistence living, hunting, supplies, and communication. The Iditarod keeps a tradition of stories and self-sufficiency intact for new generations.
“A triathlon is over in a day, then you get a massage and a good dinner,” says Urbach. “These men and women are on a trail for 12 days, taking care of their dogs, off the grid and self-supportive. It’s a test of human tenacity with a focus on your dogs’ needs. As an adventurer and endurance athlete, it resonated with my core.”
But Urbach faced immediate challenges with the race: dwindling sponsorships, dog deaths, protests, and even a dog-doping scandal. To reinforce the dogs’ value as teammates who love what they do, he proactively created ongoing conversations with news outlets and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
And he linked the Iditarod to a new 2020 international race circuit with events in Minnesota, Norway, and Russia, that culminates with the Iditarod in March.
“We want to promote the sport on a global level year-round, to showcase the high level of dog care and to tell these amazing stories both on and off the trail,” says Urbach.
“Mushers know their dogs better than their kids, and the dogs are holistically cared for by teams of vets. The dogs receive leading- edge wellness care, shelter, rubdowns, booties, the best nutrition, and mandatory rests.”
And for the dogs, he adds, “you get to go out and run around with your buddies all day.”
Despite its conflicts, there is no denying the Iditarod is a spectacle that attracts the brightest and most tenacious men, women, and dog teams from all over the world. Fishermen, lawyers, doctors, miners, artists, and natives take part, as well as hundreds of volunteers, students, and village residents who help organize the event.
“I have been to Super Bowls, Final Fours, and World Series, but I can think of no event comparable to the Iditarod,” Urbach says. “Traversing 1,049 miles of off-the-grid Alaskan wilderness, navigating through white-out snowstorms without GPS, all the while experiencing majestic scenery and the unparalleled Northern Lights, with grit and the indomitable spirit of mushers who are focused on the love and care of their 14 dogs. It’s incredibly compelling.”
Laura Boswell Milliken ’94 is a writer and mortgage loan originator in Bowling Green, Ky. She and Wes Milliken ’91 married in March 2020 in Key West, Fla., at the home of Ernest Hemingway, their favorite writer from their Centre studies.
by Laura Boswell Milliken ’94
May 21, 2020