She jokes that her midlife crisis came with fur and four legs, but the truth is, dogsleding is a lot more than a midlife crisis for Kathy Frederick. It’s a lifestyle.
Kathy is taking her love for dogsleding to the next level and has decided to compete in the 2010 Iditarod. The Iditarod, known by many as “The Last Great Race on Earth” is the longest dogsled race in the United States, stretching from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska. Mushers from all over the world come out to compete in this race each year, however its hazardous conditions and rough terrain keep many from actually crossing the finish line.
Kathy has been ambitiously training with her dogs for several years and will join 61 other mushers and their dog teams in March 2010 for the start of the race. If she finishes, she will be the second oldest female to conquer the Iditarod. Below she talks about the journey to the Iditarod, her goals and concerns, as well as what mushing has taught her about herself.
How did you first become interested in dogsled racing and ultimately in participating in the Iditarod?
I traveled to Alaska on vacation in 1995 and while there, attended a program about dogsleding. I thought it was really interesting and when I got back to Pennsylvania I looked for someone who gave dogsled rides. I found a place in Newry, Maine and my kids and I spent the week between Christmas and New Years doing dog sledding and camping out. I had wanted to live in Alaska ever since my first visit there in 1995 and decided to move there after my daughter graduated from high school. I moved to Alaska with one dog of my own and got another dog shortly after I got there. I also borrowed a friend’s dog and began recreational dog sledding.
In 1997 I saw the finish of the Iditarod and when I watched those mushers come into the finish I thought to myself, ‘I really want to do this someday.’ So, when the pieces fell into place and timing was right, I decided to go for it.
How are you preparing both yourself and your dogs for the race?
To do a race like the Iditarod, you simply cannot work full-time while training for that race. I work part-time and my dog handler and I each train a dog team four days a week. Then, my dog handler takes both dog teams out on a shorter training run on the fifth day. In order to be conditioned to run in the Iditarod, my dogs will need a minimum of 1,500 training miles on them. Between now and the Iditarod I plan to compete in a couple smaller 150 or 200 mile races and to continue to train them 5 days a week. For the Iditarod, you need 16 dogs which means having about 26 dogs since some dogs will get shoulder or wrist injuries during training and won’t be able to do the longer runs during the racing season while those injuries heal.
To learn how to “camp” with my dogs, I went to a program called Rookie Ranch in the Yukon where I learned how to do things like set up camp, take care of the dogs on the trail, and make their food. I also attended mushing bootcamp while living in Pennsylvania and a number of seminars hosted by the Alaska Dog Mushers Association. Seminars cover topics like foot care to digestive disorders in sled dogs. Also, I spend quite a bit of time talking to other mushers and others who have raced in the Iditarod. Mushers are generally pretty generous with sharing information with others and they’re happy to share knowledge. As for myself, I train by walking, hiking, and biking.
By competing in the Iditarod, what is your ultimate goal?
As a rookie, I have a modest goal – just to finish. It will probably take the winner about nine days to finish, while most first-time racers will take anywhere from 14 to 16 days to complete the race. If I am unable to complete the race, I might try again, depending on how I feel at that time. I plan to keep my team together after the Iditarod and continue to do some smaller races and ultimately scale down to simply racing for recreational purposes.
What are some of your concerns going into the Iditarod?
A lot of things can go wrong, so of course I’m nervous. As I was reading the description of the trail, it sounded pretty brutal; in fact the first 350 miles are extremely difficult with very technical trails, steep downhills and turns, ice bridges and open water, and bare ground with stumps. The Iditarod is one of only three long-distance dog sled races in the world, and it is approximately 1,049 miles from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska and so much depends on the weather conditions at the time of the race. Last year, bitter cold temperatures caused more than one third of the mushers to scratch from the race. But a lack of snow can be treacherous as well. Temperatures can drop dangerously low; I’ve experienced temperatures as low -52, but it was actually -77 degrees with the wind chill factored in. Also, I will be the second oldest female in the Iditarod’s 38-year history if I finish the race, and youth is definitely an advantage in an extreme sport like this. My relatively small size (5’4”) also makes maneuvering a sled around corners and in tight situations more difficult.
What is your favorite thing about dog sledding?
One of my favorite things is being out among the incredibly beautiful scenery of Alaska with my dog team and being able to go to places that are otherwise inaccessible. It is a privilege to get to see these parts of Alaska. Dog sledding has also taught me that rarely does everything go right and I have learned how to deal with adverse situations.
Talk about your relationship with your dogs.
I have learned that managing a dog team is a lot like a management position in a company. You need to find your best employee for the job, you need to communicate with your team clearly, you need to deal with personality differences and you must recognize when it is time to make some changes. I spend a lot of time with my dogs and have formed a strong bond with them. When I’m racing, I’m basically out in the wilderness and my dogs are what pull me through.
For more information, on Kathy and her dog team’s journey to the Iditarod, click here. If you’d like to learn more about the Iditarod, see photos and watch video of the race, click here.