The road to her first Iditarod has been full of obstacles, but for Monica Zappa of Kasilof, she has too much on the line to quit now.
Zappa, 30, is one of 16 rookies in a field of 69 competing in the 42nd Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which begins with the Ceremonial Start in Anchorage Saturday and restarts in Willow Sunday. As a member of Osmar Racing, under the leadership of 23-time Iditarod racer Tim Osmar, Zappa said if she was going to make the journey to Nome, she wanted her first race to stand for something. So, she dedicated her race to the preservation of salmon in Bristol Bay.
“I wanted to mush for something,” she said. “If I was going to commit full on I wanted it to be for a bigger purpose.”
Zappa has worked as a commercial fisher for the past four years and her partner Osmar has been a commercial fisherman his entire life. The last two years Osmar Racing has toured the lower 48, sponsored by Trout Unlimited, to spread awareness of the effects the proposed Pebble Mine could have on one of the largest salmon fisheries in the world.
Zappa said half of the salmon in the United States comes from Bristol Bay. Losing that resource would be detrimental for many Alaskans and have a widespread impact on the rest of the country, she said.
Zappa grew up around dog mushing in Wisconsin. It wasn’t until she moved to Kasilof in the fall of 2010 to work as a dog handler and teamed up with Osmar that she began to fully appreciate the importance of salmon to Alaskans.
“The spirit of the salmon is amazing,” she said. “Salmon is my dogs favorite food and they do so much better when eating it. It is incredible to me that it is even considered to be jeopardized.”
After watching the start of the Iditarod last year, she decided she wanted to compete. Since qualifying for the Iditarod with a fifth place finish in the Sheep Mountain 300 race last March, the planning for the iconic race began.
Zappa said the amount of preparation that has gone into organizing for the Iditarod race has been unbelievable. Along with training their team of 50 dogs, Osmar Racing needed to raise $20,000 to finance the race. Dog food alone was the largest expense about 2,300 pounds worth $4,000 had to be sent to 22 checkpoints along the trail, she said.
The dog team for Team Zappa is young with all but three dogs younger than three, she said. The team hasn’t had a lot of race experience because three of the races they signed up for were cancelled, including the Tustumena 200, their hometown race.
Osmar said while Zappa and her dogs may not have the experience on the Iditarod trail, they will find out together whether they like it or not. He said the dog team is full of up-and-coming superstars like Lil Red and Blue Steel. While the team does not have a true lead dog, one will emerge during the race, he said.
“The dogs get along good as long as you stagger them right,” he said. “Put two girls together and you can have a bloodbath.”
Osmar was born into sled dog mushing. His father, Dean Osmar won the 1984 Iditarod race, the same year Tim Osmar won the Jr. Iditarod, a feat he accomplished three consecutive years. In the 1990’s Tim Osmar placed in the top-10 nine consecutive years, with his best finish in 1992 when he placed third. While he hasn’t raced since 1999, he said it would be different being on the other side.
“I’m telling her to be ready for anything that might be thrown at you,” he said. “Don’t give up. It is a long way.”
The lack of snow this winter in the Kenai Peninsula has made training in the Caribou Hills virtually impossible for the last two months, Zappa said. The team has had to travel to find places to train.
Zappa and Osmar last raced the Denali Doubles on Feb. 13, a 265-mile trek from Cantwell to Paxton and back. During the race, the dog team came up with a case of the kennel cough and she said she didn’t want to push too much when they were sick. The team finished last. She said considering where the finish line was, logistically it would have been harder to scratch.
“We ended up going a lot slower than anticipated,” she said. “We ended up resting twice as long when they started coughing. You don’t want to exercise them too much when that’s happening.”
The final week leading up to the race Zappa said she has been able to rest the team. After a vet check, her 16 dogs are all healthy and cleared for racing.
She said her strategy for the race is to start slow for the first half and do a lot of resting to ease the dogs into the race.
“I wouldn’t say they are out of shape by any means,” she said. “We are fortunate because we traveled a lot to train so they have a fair amount of miles but had time to rest. Being my first year, finishing is the main goal.”
Zappa said a number of sponsors have helped her along the way. Musicians United to Protect Bristol Bay contacted her out of the blue and raised money to cover the $5,000 entry fee. Petchup, a dog food company has donated products for her dog team and TogoRun, a global communication firm based in New York City reached out to sponsor team Zappa.
TogoRun representative Andrew White said the firm wanted to sponsor a team that embodied the determination and motivation as Togo, the name of the lead dog that ran the most difficult portion of the famed Serum Run from Seward to Nome in 1925. He said Zappa has such a great story with a history coming from a family of mushers and raising her own team to compete in her first Iditarod.
During the race, the communications firm will use social media to raise money for two dog shelters. TogoRun donated $500 to the Fairbanks Animal Shelter and the Alaska Dog and Puppy Rescue and will donate .25 cents to both shelters for every retweet from Zappa’s twitter account.
“We are happy to be a part of bringing attention to a broader audience,” White said. “(Zappa) has an inspirational story and embodies the Iditarod spirit and culture.”
Zappa will be one of seven Iditarod participants from the Kenai Peninsula. Seward’s Mitch Seavey won the Iditarod in 2004, while Travis Beals of Seward and Gus Guenther from Clam Gulch are signed up to race. Zappa is one of four representing Kasilof. Paul Gebhardt, who has finished the race 17 times, has finished second twice in 2000 and 2007, while twin sisters Kristy and Anna Berington both 30 years-old also return this year.
While Zappa said it is not realistic to expect to win the marathon race on her first try, finishing — while sharing her message to protect salmon on her travel is the most important thing.
The support from friends and family along the way has brought her to the starting line, which is an accomplishment itself, she said.
“The anticipation and excitement leading up to race day is crazy,” she said. “The mentoring from Tim and support from all over the country has been amazing. I have lived in five different states and a teacher of mine made a donation. It is cool that people remember you and are cheering you on.”