Photo courtesy of Steve Watkins
Video by Kylee Bateman
Steve Watkins has always been attracted to the dangerous things in life. He spent 12 years involved in wars in the Middle East. He made an attempt to climb Mount Everest that almost ended his life. He ran the Iditarod, a 1,000 mile sled dog race that takes place every year in Alaska—twice.
It’s his sense of adventure that fuels Watkins. He’s full of it, and has an endless list of adventures he wants to do. Get married. Have kids. Swim the English Channel.
Watkins finished his last Iditarod run a month ago and already has another big adventure he’s working toward—representing Kansas’ 2nd congressional district in Congress.
From Sand to Snow
Watkins has been in conflict environments for most of his adult life. He joined the army right out of high school and went to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Upon graduation, Watkins chose Alaska as his duty station. As a high-ranking graduate, Watkins was able to choose from a list of highly coveted places, but as an outdoorsman at heart, Alaska appealed to him for being the last frontier.
After a violent tour in Afghanistan in 2004, Watkins got out of the military and moved to Iraq, working as a contractor and starting up a successful engineering unit all while living in combat zones.
Following an injury in 2013, Watkins realized he needed to get out of the Middle East for his own health. He moved back to Alaska where he set his sights on running the 2015 Iditarod.
“I set my sights on the Iditarod one year out from the race. That’s the quickest someone with no experience can go from being a layman to being in the Iditarod,” Watkins says.
Known as “The Last Great Race on Earth,” the Iditarod is a yearly race that puts mushers (dogsled drivers) and their dogs against the Alaskan elements as they travel from Anchorage to Nome. The race pays tribute to the 1925 run that brought medicine from Anchorage to Nome during a diphtheria epidemic.
“It’s like living in a National Geographic magazine that’s three dimensional,” Watkins says.
The Iditarod is a grueling race that tests a person. A musher has to face subzero temperatures, blizzard conditions, and biting winds, not to mention the mental endurance it takes to finish the race. Those were all the things that appealed to Watkins’ sense of adventure. Ever since Watkins first moved to Alaska, he knew he wanted to try his hand at the Iditarod.
“For me it wasn’t if, it was when and how, because it had these ingredients that I love so much. It was dogs. It was the Arctic. It was the outdoors. It was this intersection of all these things that I just love,” Watkins says.
The usual course of action for a rookie entering the Iditarod is to work as a dog handler for a musher a few years before racing. But Watkins didn’t have time for that. He reached out to a handful of mushers about taking him on as a client and teaching him to race. A few got back to him, and he picked Ray Redington Jr. as his mentor, who has placed in the top 10 six out of the last eight Iditarods. The two trained together in for a year before the 2015 race.
Watkins’ first training run with Redington was a disaster. He fell off and was lying on the ground in pain, looking up at sky and ready to quit.
“And then I thought about why I was doing what I was doing,” Watkins says. “I always have this saying, ‘If my why is strong enough, then I can endure any what.’ So if why I’m doing what I’m doing is strong enough, then it doesn’t matter how difficult it is, I can persevere it and keep going.”
For Watkins, that “why” was inspiring veterans.
As a veteran coming back from the Middle East to run the Iditarod, Watkins received an influx of media attention. This led to veterans getting in contact with Watkins to share their stories of how he inspired them.
As Watkins saw how much of an impact he was making with veterans, he realized he could use his life as a platform to help motivate veterans with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Nearly 20 percent of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan reported symptoms of PTSD. Watkins began pairing up veterans, encouraging them to keep each other accountable in going out, doing outdoor activities, and getting their lives back on track after returning from war. Some veterans even went to Alaska before the Iditarod to meet Watkins, sharing stories of how he’s helped them.
“Many members of the veteran community started following me and encouraging me and saying they were being inspired by me,” Watkins says. “So I thought, that’s cool, but what would the next level look like if I were to take it to the next level?”
The “next level” needed to be a feat larger than just running the Iditarod. In 2015, Watkins wanted to be the first person to finish the Iditarod and summit Mount Everest in the same year. This announcement had the impact Watkins was hoping for, and he received local and national media attention about his upcoming endeavor. He set this goal not for the fame and notoriety it would bring him, but to reach more people and inspire more veterans.
“I didn’t want to put myself out there for the sake of it, I really didn’t. But that’s the only way you can make a difference, by putting yourself out there,” Watkins says.
The 2015 Iditarod went well for Watkins, who finished in a little over 12 days. Shortly after finishing, he left for his Everest climb. But when he was 19,200 feet up the mountain, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal. The earthquake and subsequent avalanche killed over 8,500 people, including 22 on Mount Everest.
Because of the earthquake, Watkins didn’t end up accomplishing his goal to summit the mountain, but he still did what he originally set out to do—show the world that tough goals are worth pursuing.
In 2018, Watkins decided to run the Iditarod again. As usual, he did it for others, with vets and teachers at the top of his list.
“You’ve got to be very careful if you’re an adventurer and make sure that it’s not so selfish. What you do needs to be for other people, or to honor something bigger. That’s my philosophy,” Watkins says. “I have a bottomless reservoir of adventure I’d love to do forever, but it’s not about me. If it starts to be too much about you, then you’re outside for the wrong reasons.”
With so many eyes on him, the pressure was heightened to finish the race. Watkins took it more conservatively, giving his dogs adequate rest and stopping longer at the checkpoints.
Every musher has a different strategy to get to the burled arches in Nome that mark the finish line. Without any desire to run the race competitively, Watkins’ strategy was a good one, but a combination of other factors prevented his finishing.
“It’s like living in a National Geographic magazine that’s three dimensional.” —Steve Watkins
He got lost early in the race, losing a few hours as he made his way back to the trail. That, combined with a blizzard, caused Watkins to be separated from the bulk of the mushers, who were far ahead of him. At the Unalakleet checkpoint 270 miles from the finish, race officials pulled out Watkins and another musher for falling too far behind. Watkins was upset he didn’t finish, but was more upset for everyone else who was following his story.
“I’m absolutely humiliated I didn’t finish. I have good reason why, but I’m humiliated because I feel like they counted on me,” Watkins says.
Despite the end result, Watkins has been able to speak at schools about his experiences in the two Iditarods and the lessons he’s learned from them. In his presentation “How to Succeed at Mushing and Life”, Watkins talks about goals while keeping the kids’ attentionive with photos of sled dogs.
“You do the Iditarod not for what it will get you,” Watkins says. “You do the Iditarod for what it’ll make of you. It forces you to delve within yourself and find perseverance you never knew existed.”
A Different Race
With two Iditarods behind him, Watkins is focusing on another race—the race for U.S. Congress. He has always had a desire to serve greater causes, which his life experiences point to.
“There’s a theme and a pattern here of acknowledging that there’s a cause, or a country in this case. And that needs to be held together with both hands by people who care and people who show up and give it their all,” Watkins says.
That desire, combined with a need to get out of conflict environments, caused Watkins to consider a run for Congress a few years ago. When Lynn Jenkins, current representative for Kansas’ 2nd congressional district, decided to retire, the timing was right for Watkins’ run.
“You’ve got to be very careful if you’re an adventurer and make sure that it’s not so selfish. What you do needs to be for other people, or to honor something bigger. That’s my philosophy.” —Steve Watkins
Watkins has been on the front lines fighting IS, al-Qaida, and the Taliban, and believes his experience in the army and Middle East has prepared him for a role in U.S. politics. He had lost a few friends during that time, but they continue to shape how he lives his life.
“I know that I used to lead them, and now they lead me. And if they were to lead me to do anything now, it would be to go on the street with guns, meaning you show up for the fight, you do what you think is right no matter what it might cost you,” Watkins says. “I can feel that that’s what they’re telling me to do. So that’s why I’m running.”
Since Watkins doesn’t come from a background in politics, he enrolled in Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to learn about public policy and graduated a year ago, around the same time Jenkins retired.
The campaigning is new terrain for Watkins, who’s had to face the reality of the public structiny and fundraising in politics. Even with the challenges, Watkins stays positive and focused on his campaign to bring Kansas’ values of hard work and integrity to Congress.
“It’s a lot of coffee,” Watkins says. “We wake up early and we stay up late. We are kept alive by ramen noodles and a hope of a better tomorrow.”