By Tetsuhiko Endo; Photograph by Bob Hallinen, Landov, see more adventurers in our Ultimate Adventurers gallery.
The long, cold winter is winding down for most of us, but in Alaska, they are gearing up for one last hurrah. That’s right, the 86th Iditarod kicks off March 6. The dogsledding race goes from Anchorage to Nome, a distance of over 1,150 miles, passing through every kind terrain and weather that America’s 49th state has to offer—deep forests, desolate tundra, frozen rivers, mountain passes, windswept coastal plains, rain storms, snow storms, and the occasional gale-force wind. It may not be the last great race, as it is sometimes called, but it is certainly one of them.
“It's rich history is what makes it unique among dogsleding races,” says four-time Iditarod champ Lance Mackey. “The Iditarod Trail has been used as a route between villages for ages, for supplies and for travel during the Gold Rush days. When the diphtheria outbreak hit in 1925, the Iditarod Trail was used to save the lives of the people of Nome. You can’t help but think about this when you’re driving a team on this route.”
Mackey wasn’t sure if Alaskan state pride goes above and beyond that of other Americans, but there is no doubt that this race galvanizes them like few other sporting events. Of the 62 mushers competing this year, only 16 are from places other than Alaska. Each one, regardless of his or her providence, will be supported by a network of thousands of volunteers who actually run most of the race.
One of the more unlikely foreigners in the race is Jamaican Oswald “Newton” Marshall. When asked how he initially got into mushing, he tells this story: “I was working at Chukka Caribbean Adventures outfitters as a horse groom and trail guide when the owner, Danny Melville asked me if I wanted to try something new. I didn’t know what I was taking on when I agreed. The next thing I knew, I was running dogs at the farm (in Jamaica). After a few months, I was on a plane to train with [champion musher] Hans Gatt. I have always loved animals especially dogs. We have a bond.”
Regardless of how strong that bond might be, the Iditarod has a way of testing people. Marshall says his lowest point in his first Iditarod, last year, came at a place called Rainy Pass. “There was a bad storm with winds of 60 miles per hour, the path was pitch black, I couldn’t see my dog team. I had frostbite on my nose, face, and hands. I also had two dogs in heat so my leader kept turning back to get to them. The trail was treacherous, and I was up to my chest in snow—wet and cold. At that point I thought I was going to die.”
Mackey’s low point came not from weather, but from a more insidious foe: cancer. “I had to pull out of the race right after my (throat) cancer treatment in 2002,” he says. “I was having trouble with a feeding tube still in place, it kept freezing up and I just wasn’t getting enough fuel, so to speak. It was frustrating, I wanted to be out there to prove cancer didn’t win, but I knew I had to stop for the good of my dogs.”
According to both men, the welfare of the dogs is the biggest preoccupation of every musher with trail conditions a close second. “The dogs are the key to finishing the race,” Marshall says. “The mushers have to make sure that they are cared for in the minus 50 to 60 below temperatures.”
That’s Fahrenheit, not Celsius, by the way. The larger question for most of us is: How do you keep yourself warm in those temperatures? Both Mackey and Marshall extol the virtues of layers and goose down, but Newton keeps an extra ace in his heavily layered sleeve. “My trick to staying warm is to dance…I listen to Buju Banton and Bob Marley songs and sing them aloud to my dogs. When I sing, I feel the vibes to dance and when you start dancing the dogs start running better because they feel your happiness. The vibes are there for everyone to run faster and better.”
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Getting dogs that can complete a race like this is a task in itself. While some use mixed breed dogs, Mackey swears by Alaskan Huskies that he raises at his Comeback Kennel. “They begin their training from the day they are born, first with socializing, eating and drinking habits,” he says. “Then, when they are yearlings we test their skills at running in a small team.”
And what separates a good dog from an Iditarod dog? “Appetite and attitude” is Mackey’s motto. “They must have a good appetite and GREAT attitude. They don’t have to be the fastest, they just have to love what they do.” The mushers' “appetite” often takes a second place to "attitude," as both Mackey and Marshall attest to eating on the run for most of the race. Marshall, in particular says that aside from the odd steak at certain checkpoints, he subsists mostly on peanuts, candy bars, energy bars and granola bars for the duration of the race.
But despite it all, motivation isn’t a problem for him. “I enjoy the idea of being out there alone, in the scenery, just you and the dogs alone in the wilderness, enjoying nature and God’s creation,” he says. “Anyone who says it is fun – they are crazy. But knowing that, I have completed this race, reach the finish line with everyone cheering me on and it gives such a happy feeling that after all is said and done, I have accomplished something great.”