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Trade Secrets: Cold Warrior
While more than 3,000 climbers have summited Mount Everest, only 718 mushers have completed Alaska’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Abbott is half-way to doing both. Her team will be one of more than 70 in this year’s Anchorage-to-Nome dash.
They thought she was nuts—a woman from Orange County racing a 14-dog team across 1,100 miles of icy wilderness—but Abbott, of Irvine, is ready to try again. Functionally blind and coping with an incurable inflammation of the blood vessels known as Wegener’s granulomatosis, the 55-year-old Cal State Fullerton health science instructor sets off March 1 on her second Iditarod, “the toughest race on Earth.” A broken pelvis sidelined her 10 days and two-thirds of the way into last year’s outing. Says the woman who has scaled Mount Everest: “I’ve always been an adventurer.”
How does someone from SoCal get into mushing?
After I climbed Everest in 2010—which was never on my to-do list until I watched a documentary on it at 48—someone on my website joked, “What’s next, the Iditarod?” I’d learned about both in an environmental physiology class in the ’90s, but back then never thought about doing either. But I learn fast, adapt, and have a high pain tolerance.
Everest or the Iditarod?
After the climb, I got home and thought, “I don’t think anything was harder than that”—until I started mushing. There’s no map, no guide. I can run 12 hours and never see another human. All of my energy goes to helping and protecting my team. While the dogs are resting, I’m not. I have to get their food, get the gear ready, repair the sled. I was getting about three hours of sleep in a 24-hour cycle. One of last year’s frontrunners went for two days without, and he didn’t win.
How did other mushers react to you?
Almost all are from Alaska or Canada, so when I first showed up, people thought it was a joke. I was entering a world where they were born and bred into dog racing. I had to earn my right to be there.
Were you a natural?
I did have cold-weather exposure skills—living 54 days on Everest, at 18,000 feet or higher with just a tent and a sleeping bag—but dog care and driving a sled were completely new to me. I didn’t know how to ski or read trail markers when I ran my first race. It was a steep, steep learning curve.
How does a musher qualify?
You have to run two 300-mile races, and a third that is at least 150 miles with your team. Race marshals and vets grade you on wilderness survival, dog care, navigation, and then pass those reports on to the race’s board of directors. It’s not about the person so much as whether you have proved you’ll keep the team safe.
How does one person handle 16 dogs?
Dogs are really intelligent in reading people, so I did psychological research on dog mannerisms and perception to accelerate the bonding and trust processes. Unlike most mushers, I didn’t have them since they were puppies; because I’d disappear to O.C. for three months, I had to prove to them that they could trust me, that I’m the alpha dog.
How do you get your team ready?
I start training with 42 dogs to figure out their personalities, and then I’ll pick 20 and leave with 16. There are leaders and then team dogs that only follow. So I have to see who runs next to whom better, and then if the females come into heat, there’s another set of variables. Because of fighting and breeding issues, some people only run females or males.
How do you train?
I have to stay strong, because I’m pulling some very strong dogs, and driving a sled that usually weighs 150 to 200 pounds. I work out with weights, my husband and I climb Mount Baldy for a nice four- or five-hour workout, and then when I get up to Alaska, we run the dogs, and do a lot of lifting—the dogs and their food, big blocks of meat.
What’s in the sled?
A 40-below sleeping bag, snowshoes, an ax, booties and coats for the dogs, a cooker. And about 70 pounds of dog food, but that’s not going to get me far. They burn 10,000 to 15,000 calories a day, so I stop every few hours to give them some lamb or fish.
What about you?
Things I can keep in my pocket so I can eat on the go: beef sticks, individual cans of Pringles, cans of tuna, and a cracker bar that doesn’t freeze too easily. My favorite is a bag of Stouffer’s chipped beef dropped in the water cooker.
Worst day on the trail?
Last year, we dealt with whiteout blizzards, but the heat was our enemy. It got up to 50 degrees at one point, so the dogs were getting overheated and the trail conditions were slush. We had to get over a river that should have been frozen. Some mushers literally carried every one of their dogs across, because it’s against their instincts to cross it.
What’s the tab for running the race?
This has been $100,000 out of pocket for us, and that’s on a budget.
What’s the prize?
$50,000 and a new Dodge truck. It isn’t a joke when they say that if you win the Iditarod, you don’t make enough money to run the Iditarod.
For more on Abbott’s story, check out her self-published 2011 book, “Reaching Beyond the Clouds.” Her full-length documentary, “Racing for Life,” is set for midyear release.
Photo Illustration by Jesse Lenz
This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue.