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 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.

You've won four Iditarods. Does the race ever become easier?

I think it might even get harder each year. The challengers are there every year in greater numbers, we see more hungry drivers.

What keeps you so committed, keeps you coming back to such a grueling event every year?

I think it's the pride in my dogs. We are the proud owners of dogs that we've bred and raised, and I'm proud to show them off. I love getting ready for the race—teaching them things, training and shaping the team. Of course, once you've put in all that effort you need to take it out on the race trail and compare your efforts with everybody else's.

What qualities help make a dog-sled driver successful in such a demanding race?

I joke that it's type A personalities who have learned to live with it. We've got to have a lot of drive, be competitive, and pay attention to detail. You've got to be into the dogs—into their heads—and pay attention to them mentally as much as you pay attention to them physically. Also, there are gear and equipment factors, so we try to lighten the load every way we can. Every ounce counts. I'll cut half of my toothbrush off to save some weight.

I try to make sure people understand that the race is in the headlines for a short time, but it really is a full-time, year-round commitment. It takes a tremendous number of hours.

During the Iditarod, you're out in very wild country for maybe nine or ten days and get no support from anyone except other drivers. That requires self-reliance, but is there also a special bond among the competitors?

We know each other really well and 99 percent of us get along. We're all competitive, but we're also way the hell out there and we know if we don't help each other out, we could be in a big jam. Sometimes we get in dangerous situations that can't be overcome by one person alone.

What kind of memorable jams have you experienced?

Well, we say close calls don't count—otherwise you'd always be counting. There are many. One standout was a big storm in 1991 when five of us went into the storm and only two came out the right end. Three others had to turn back, and even the locals in the area had never seen anybody conquer a storm like that. For literally 27 hours I walked step by step with my dogs, as the leader. In that storm I gained the confidence to win. It was such an intense experience that it resulted in my first win the next year. So when I talk about winning the Iditarod, I tell people winning has to be learned as well.

Lets talk about the dogs. What makes a champion sled dog?

There is an old cliché: "A 50-pound dog with a hundred-pound heart." That's really what it comes down to. The incredible drive that these canine athletes have is second to none. You might know a dog that will chase and return a stick all day, no matter how many times you throw it. They never get tired. Our dogs are devoted like that. Sometimes they can drive you nuts because they have so much energy, and they are driven. There isn't a registered breed for a great sled dog. We call them "thoroughbred mongrels."

The dogs really love to run, don't they? What are some of their favorite activities during training?

We train year round, and I enjoy the whole year. What the dogs really like is free running, and we do a lot of that. We take up to 24 of them at a time, and I drive them to a big hay field and airstrip. Then I just turn them loose and let them race up and down. I spend maybe an hour and a half with them. They absolutely love it and it's also part of the training. Not only the strength is important, so are team-building efforts. Learning to get along with each other's personalities and work as team is key.

We train all summer. As soon as it starts cooling off, we'll incorporate team training. That's hooking them up in harness and letting them pull the four wheelers a little bit. Once the snow hits the ground, we'll switch to the sleds. Our first race typically is in mid-December, a race called the Christmas classic.

How many years do your dogs race, and what do they do in their retirement?

In my team they retire when they hit double digits [in age]. To run on my team they can't be under two or over ten years old. I have about four retirement kennels, and a vast circle of people are clamoring for the animals. I give them to new homes and try to match the personalities of dogs and owners.

Some of them stay in the kennel, but these old-timers get a little more special care—a little more TLC as someone's pet, then as a part of a big kennel. As pets, they still get their exercise. You have to let them do what they really like to do.

Is there anything you think people should know about dog-sled racing that may not be obvious?

The emphasis of the sport should really be on the dogs and not the drivers. They go out and run 150 miles in 24 hours, sleep a few hours, and then they are ready to get up and do it again. They are the true heroes of the trail. The humans just get all the attention because they can talk.

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