Dogs Are "True Heroes" of Iditarod, Race Champ Says

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
November 13, 2002

Martin Buser is the defending champion and a four-time winner of the Iditarod dog-sled race and a member of its Hall of Fame. He and his family operate Happy Trails Kennel in Big Lake, Alaska, which breeds and trains sled dogs.

Buser, accompanied by one of his sled dogs, will describe his adventures in "The Last Great Race," a real-time Web cast broadcast November 20, 2002 on Nationalgeographic.com. The program was offered under the "Quest for Adventure" lecture series, sponsored by Nature Valley, that brings explorers and adventurers to the National Geographic Society and to people around the world via the Internet.

National Geographic News recently interviewed Buser as he and his wife, Kathy Chapoton, anticipated the start of this year's racing events, including the classic 1,110-mile (1,770-kilometer) Iditarod race from Anchorage to Nome, which begins March 1.

How does someone get started in dog-sled racing? It's not a sport that's easy to pick up.

No, it isn't. I grew up in Europe. I lived half of my life in Switzerland, and I was introduced to dog sledding there in my teen years. I helped other people train their dogs in my spare time and I just kind of got hooked. I always had animals growing up, but I never had more than one or two dogs at a time. When I finished school and completed my mandatory military service in 1979, I decided to go to Alaska for a year. Well, I am still here. The Iditarod, of course, is not just a two-week race. It's more than just a sport—it's a lifestyle.

The 2001 Iditarod was a very tough one for you. Then last year, in 2002, you went from worst to first and even set a world record. How were you able to bounce back?

There are just so many variables. It's a combination of many factors that led to the problems in 2001—the results of the training season, some tough weather we experienced, with a lack of snow. I had probably gotten a little too diverse, involved in too many other things, like sitting on boards, going to meetings, promoting different causes. It left me spread a little bit too thin. I trained the same amount as usual, but I don't think I had the same quality of training. During the race I was really hurting physically, my sled was broken. Just finishing [the 2001 Iditarod] was an achievement.

So for 2002 we adopted a "worst to first" mantra. Each season we have a mantra. We started to cut out some of the superficial stuff, and went back to having fun with the dogs and focusing on their progress, and not much else. Not only was the race very successful, the whole training season was a joy.

In 2002, you not only succeeded in your racing mission but also became an American citizen during your victorious finish. Why that timing?

It became part of what we called the "triple crown." There were three major events that we set out to accomplish. The first was to improve in the Iditarod, to go from worst to first. The second was for me to become a naturalized citizen. Finally, we wanted to snow-machine home from Nome as a family—over 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers).

We started the race in Anchorage, and an immigration official handed me the completed official papers, which needed to be signed, and an American flag. That started what we call the world's longest naturalization ceremony. I put the packet on my sled and carried it during the race, all the way to Nome. In Nome, the judge finished the ceremony when I took the oath of allegiance under the burled arch while some teams were still coming across the finish line. So we had a huge party in Nome. It all seemed to flow into a huge event. Finally, we had a great family vacation snow-machining home. The month of March was one big celebration for us. In fact, we're still smiling around here.

Continued on Next Page >>


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