If anyone knows what it’s like to compete in a 1,000-mile long dog sled race in the frozen Alaskan wilderness, it’s Sean Underwood. 

He competed in the 2020 Iditarod race, but only found out days before it started. He was a dog handler for champion musher Jeff King. When King found out he needed to have emergency surgery, he called Underwood. 

“I was surprised, but I had worked with these dogs for three years, every day,” Underwood told GPB. “I think in some ways it was actually easier than planning on running the Iditarod.” 

Underwood made it 970 miles, nearly to the finish line of that 2020 Iditarod race, before having to call for emergency help after a storm put him at risk. He competed for a second time in 2021. 

A metro Atlanta native, Underwood now hosts a popular podcast with his brother Brendan. On Mushing Alaska, the two talk to some of the athletes who compete in the sport — from veterans to first-timers. 

GPB spoke with the brothers about the podcast and the famous Iditarod race.


Pamela Kirkland: Intense. Cold. Unrelenting. Those are a few things that come to my mind when I think about the Iditarod. The [annual] 1,000-mile Alaskan sled dog race is as much mental as it is physical, and this year promises to be just as grueling. Sean Underwood competed in the Iditarod in 2021 and hosts a podcast with his brother Brendan called Mushing Alaska. Welcome to Morning Edition, Sean and Brendan.

Brendan Underwood: Hello, and thank you for having us.

Pamela Kirkland: All right, Sean, we have to start with the obvious question: How did you get into this field? I mean, was this something you wanted to do when you were little, when you were growing up?

Sean Underwood: I grew up in Atlanta playing tennis. I think I probably knew about as much about Alaska as most people in the Lower 48. Brendan and I have an uncle that lives up here [in Alaska]. I was like, all right, let me give him a call. I want to come and visit. And by the end of the conversation, he had convinced me to spend the next three months up here commercial fishing.

Pamela Kirkland: Brendan, what was your reaction when your brother said, hey, I'm going to pack my stuff up and move to Alaska?

Brendan Underwood: Honestly, it was — I was like, slightly jealous that I hadn't had this idea before Sean did. So, you know, he graduated college and was kind of looking for, "Maybe I don't want to just jump right into a job." And I think it was super smart to do that because the long story short of it is it led to him living in Alaska and getting a chance to do the Iditarod. So. Yeah, when I first found out, I was like, "Man, why didn't I think of this?"

Pamela Kirkland: Sean, I do want to talk about when you did compete in the Iditarod. 

Iditarod sound: Can we give a huge welcome to Sean Underwood. Sean was born and raised in Atlanta, Ga., and graduated from Georgia Southern University.

Pamela Kirkland: What was it like? What was that training like?

Sean Underwood: Yeah, it's — it's tough. I think the training is actually in some ways more difficult just because it's so long. How do you — how would you train for a marathon, for example? There's a lot of right ways to do it. There's probably a few wrong ways to do it. And with dogs — you know, it's usually you're training, not just 14 or 16 dogs, which already sounds like a lot of dogs. But, you know, I was working with groups of dogs where I'm training, you know, 30-plus dogs to be potentially chosen to run a 14- or 16-dog race. And, so, yeah. And by January, February, these dogs have seen 2,000 to 4,000 miles of trail. So you get to the start line of the race and it is just a, like, sigh of relief. You leave the start line, and it's just like, "Ah. All right, now I can just run the dogs. This is, like, chill."

Pamela Kirkland: You were tapped at the last minute [in 2020] to compete, I understand. What was your reaction when you got that phone call?

Sean Underwood: I just got the chills just hearing it right now. I was like, what, it just feels like some other guy ran it and it, like, wasn't me. You know, it's just like this weird dream. You know, I was ready. That's the thing, though. I was surprised, but I had worked with these dogs for three years, every day. In some ways, some dogs might have viewed me as I'm their No. 1 caretaker. So I was really excited. I was emotional. I was shocked. I didn't have really time to process it. But like, I think in some ways it was actually easier than planning on running the Iditarod. And so I didn't have to think about all winter long, like "I'm running the Iditarod. Oh, God, it's a thousand miles across Alaska. Oh my gosh." Instead, I just was like, "Oh, I'm running the Iditarod in four days? OK, cool."

Pamela Kirkland: What's it like working with the dogs? I'm a dog person, so I'm biased. You are their No. 1 caretaker. They think of you like a dad, and so you develop a relationship with the dogs, as much as you're talking to other people about training and getting ready for the race.

Sean Underwood: Yeah, it's a really special connection that you have with the dogs. I was just visiting my friend's dog yard. It's just such a fun experience. Suffice to say, I've spent, like hundreds, maybe thousands of hours just, like, talking to dogs with, like, no one around. Like, I have so many weird, quirky, like, dog voices. This guy.

Pamela Kirkland: It's like the dogs know all of your secrets. Brendan, tell us about the podcast. I mean, you guys are interviewing mushers about their experience. You know, some of these Iditarod veterans who've run the race a couple of times. What's it like talking to people like that?

Brendan Underwood: Man, I love it. I really do. I think, you know, having parents that worked in the media in the '80s and '90s and early 2000, it's kind of, like, in our blood a little bit. The first few times we had guests on, it was a little nerve wracking. But as we start to do it more and more, it's it's just nice to get to know the folks. And then by the end of it, I feel like we've you know, Sean oftentimes knows these folks already or, you know, kind of has maybe met them in passing or whatever. So he has a little bit of an easier time. But for me, I'm always like, "I don't really know them." But by the end of a recording, I'm like, I feel like they're my best friend again. So, it's super fun. And, you know, the idea kind of came — Sean was trying to do a podcast by himself, and, you know, it was it's a lot of work. And, you know, I'm like, "I kind of want to help. I kind of want to help you do this." And one thing led to another. The whole thing is about having a good time, making the mushers accessible to the fans of — of the sport. And, yeah, just spreading good news, good awareness of things.

Pamela Kirkland: I did want to take a moment to ask you guys about Eddie Burke Jr. He was the Iditarod 2023 Rookie of the Year, and he was suspended for violating a conduct standard. Brendan, what was your reaction to that news?

Brendan Underwood: I know that the Iditarod is put in a difficult situation. There's a lot of work that goes into preparing. So that's 1. where I kind of as a fan, as someone who's putting out a podcast that is heavily focused on the Iditarod, that — that's an area for me that's a little bit disappointing to hear. I have to also look at the other side and understand that there's probably a lot of stuff that we don't know about, but I do wish that these decisions were made maybe sooner.

Sean Underwood: Yeah. I mean, it's a really, tricky situation. I was talking, texting literally five minutes before this with a couple of my friends of, like, "How do we talk about this?" He's a good, good friend of ours, and we wish him the best.

Pamela Kirkland: The Iditarod takes off on Saturday, March 2. If you want to hear more Mushing Alaska, you can check out Sean and Brendan Underwood wherever you find your podcasts. Thank you guys so much for joining me.

Sean Underwood: Thank you so much for having us. And we had a blast talking with you.

Pamela Kirkland: At the time of this interview, we spoke with Brendon and Sean Underwood after the Iditarod had disqualified a musher for violating conduct. He was later reinstated by the Race Commission, but ultimately withdrew from the race.