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Meet the mushers: It takes all kinds to run the Iditarod

Sports views

Posted: Sunday, March 06, 2005

Aside from wild moose trying to stomp the dogs and the risks of plunging into the icy ocean or river in inky darkness, the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is a jaunt in a park.

Except this is Mother Nature's Most Extreme Park, not the kind of meadows where most dog lovers take their Rovers to run around. Mushers don't scoop up the poop, fling Frisbees or throw sticks to fetch.

Depending on your point of view the Iditarod is:

A — The ultimate nine-day to two-week test of courage and endurance for 79 of the world's most intrepid mushers and their beloved teams of 16 keenly trained Alaskan Huskies and other mixed breeds.

Or:

B — An inhumane exercise that can kill or injure the dogs as sleep-deprived, sometimes feverish mushers drive their weary teams and themselves beyond their limits in pursuit of fame and fortune — $72,000 to this year's winner from a total purse of $750,000.

Those who glorify the Iditarod call it ''The Last Great Race.''

Critics, citing the death of more than 120 dogs in the race since the first one in 1973, dub it ''The I-Killed-A-Sled-Dog Race.''

Whatever it is, it crosses jagged mountain ranges, dense forests and desolate tundra — some of the most beautiful and forbidding terrain on earth — starting ceremonially on Saturday in Anchorage, restarting north of the city in Willow on Sunday, and ending whenever the last team gets to Nome and the symbolic ''Widow's Lamp'' is extinguished.

It's 70 mph winds in temperatures that go to 40 below zero, blizzards and blinding 100 mph gusts that can send sleds skidding into trees.

It's a journey, a story, a race. It's the challenge of a lifetime for some, an addictive, joyous way of life for others.

It's men and women, and dogs of both sexes, in one of the few sports where they compete against each other on even terms. Two women have won — Susan Butcher four times, Libby Riddles once — and another, DeeDee Jonrowe, has finished second twice.

It's hundreds of volunteers making it all happen, veterinarians taking their jobs seriously to keep the dogs as safe and healthy as possible. It's teachers using the race to give kids lessons about life and challenges, remote villages with sparse populations offering food and space in their schools to help those following the trail.

It's 51-year-old Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Mont., the Michael Jordan of mushing, who pulled out about halfway through last year with frostbitten corneas when he took off his goggles for four miles to stay on the trail. The wind chill factor was down to 90 below and Swingley's eyes had been hypersensitive since corrective laser surgery a couple of years earlier. Nearly blinded with painful inflammation for several weeks, he's back competing, his vision still impaired, to seek a record-tying fifth title.

Go to the anti-Iditarod Web site www.helpsleddogs.org and you'll find dozens of newspaper, magazine and book excerpts chronicling sickening tales about the dogs and the hard-driving tactics of Swingley and other professional mushers.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals does not oppose sled dog racing, but worries about the dangers posed by the intense pace of the Iditarod.

''General concerns arise whenever intense competition results in dogs being pushed beyond their endurance or capabilities,'' ASPCA Vice President Stephen Zawistowski says.

The animal activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals takes a much stronger stand against the Iditarod.

''We're totally opposed to the race for the cruelty issues associated with it,'' PETA spokeswoman Jennifer O'Connor says. ''I believe more injuries and deaths occur than are reported. The defense is the dogs love to run, but they're still forced to endure this unbelievably grueling race in unbelievable conditions. We have 800,000 members and supporters and people are universally aghast about this race. They can't believe it's still going.''

Ask Swingley about it and he has nothing but disdain for the critics.

''These are the best cared-for dogs in the world,'' he says. ''My veterinary bill is about $15,000 to $20,000 a year. My dogs have run this race 10 times. I have never lost a dog in the race. It's very unusual for anybody to lose one — maybe one or two a year.''

Or talk to Ramey Smyth, 29, of Big Lake, Alaska, the son of Iditarod veterans Bud Smyth and the late Lolly Medley. Smyth has been mushing since he was a child and finished fourth last year in his 10th Iditarod. To him, the 40-50 pound dogs are extraordinary athletes who were bred to run long distances in cold weather.

''Only a fool or an inexperienced person thinks the dogs are being abused,'' Smyth says. ''You can't get an animal to reach its top performance unless you treat it nicely and you feed it exceptionally.

''When I run low on money, I'm the one who suffers. If they go downhill, I can't win anything. I can bide it a little bit and still perform. But if the dogs don't have adequate food and shelter and don't feel good mentally, then they aren't going to work and you're going to lose. That's the bottom line: Dogs that are abused don't perform. It would never pay to abuse them.''

Smyth has pushed himself to the limits of pain and fatigue in this race, and his dogs have taken him through the roughest of times. He started the 1997 race with a cast on his broken right foot, and his back was still aching after breaking it the year before. Then shortly before the race, he broke a couple of fingers. Going down the hazardous Dalzell Gorge, unable to stand on his broken foot and holding on with one hand, he clipped an overhanging branch with the pinky of his left hand and, he says almost matter of factly, ''cut the end of it off.''

The end of the finger?

''Yeah, just the end.''

Just the end.

''But it bled like hell, and so I wrapped it up with black tape. I lost a lot of blood, so I was really thirsty when I got into the next checkpoint. I usually use water purification tablets. But I was so thirsty I didn't want to wait for it to sit for 20 minutes. Well, I chewed the tablet up, so that burned the hell out of my tongue. So then I couldn't talk. That was an interesting race. It was tough to booty up the dogs because my back was still hurting.''

Still, Smyth took care of his dogs, fed and strawed them, put their health ahead of his own. They took care of him by getting him through the race.

In a freak accident this past Tuesday, four-time Iditarod winner Martin Buser injured his middle finger on a table saw at his Big Lake home and underwent a partial amputation. Buser still planned on racing.

Why, a reasonable person might ask, do mushers put up with so much pain and risk the perils of the Iditarod? The money is decent but it's surely not the easiest path to wealth.

''It's an addiction,'' said 20-year-old Rachael Scdoris of Bend, Ore., an Iditarod rookie who has been mushing since she was 3, grew up with 90 huskies in her front yard and started racing in shorter events at age 11.

Scdoris is not one to be stopped by limitations. She was born with a rare vision disorder that left her legally blind with 20-200 acuity, color blind and extremely light sensitive. Yet she shrugs those off to pursue her passion with the guidance of fellow musher Paul Ellering, who will race ahead of her, yelling out directions about the trail or communicating by two-way radio.

''It's a lot of hard work and you get pretty beat up out there. But it's a great sport,'' Scdoris says. ''It embodies everything I love — dogs, outdoors, athleticism. It's always a challenge. No run is ever the same. You never get bored with it. You never know what to expect. It's fun, it's scary. Scary is fun once you've survived it.''

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org.



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