Thursday, March 08, 2012

Finding your Inner Sled Dog: An Ultrarunner's Guide to the Iditarod

Zoya DeNure's team at the 2011 Iditarod (Photo by Dana Orlosky)

If I told you about a sport where the athletes run crazy distances over remote wilderness trails through sleepless nights, where nutrition, hydration, and pacing play key roles, where logistics and route finding can be tricky and an entire year is dedicated to preparing for just one or two big races – a sport that is dominated by the older set because experience counts more than anything, and race finishers are rewarded with a belt buckle – I bet you’d know what sport I’m talking about.

That’s right. Dog sledding.

I got into dog sledding when I lived in Minnesota, and wondered, what’s a California girl to do in the frozen north? As a dirtbag 20-something, the easiest way for me to find adventures was by finding work in the outdoors, so I promptly moved up north and took a job as a dog handler for a musher in Brimson. There, I spent a winter living off the grid, pumping water from a well, splitting many, many chords of firewood, bathing in a sauna (pronounced SOW-nuh), and caring for 35 Alaskan huskies.

Ray Reddington Jr. at the 2011 Iditarod (Photo by Dana Orlosky)

If you’re not familiar with the sport, you may have some misconceptions about dog sledding. Alaskan huskies are a mixed breed – mutts – who have been bred for their desire to run. I have never related so well to another animal. When they see you pull that sled out and walk toward the dog yard with a pile of harnesses in your arms, they’re like children on the best Christmas morning ever. The chaos of barking and howling and pulling on their chains as they cry desperately to be one of the dogs chosen for the day’s team reaches a fever pitch when you finally have all the dogs on the gangline, pull the snow hook, and speed off into the woods. The team dogs lope down the trail with joyful abandon, but the dogs left behind let out with a mournful song.

You have no idea what the phrase “born to run” means until you’ve met a sled dog.

The musher I worked for had a library of books on dog sledding, and I devoured them. I read the memoirs of so many Iditarod finishers I can’t even remember all their names. The book by Libby Riddles, the first woman to win the race, was particularly educational with tons of side notes about the rules and history of the race. I wasn’t an ultrarunner at the time, but the endurance and tenacity required to drive a team a thousand miles across Alaska was not lost on me. I became a total Iditarod junkie.

As we speak, the 2012 Iditarod is underway. Sixty-six mushers, each starting with a team of 16 dogs, are on their way to Nome.

Mitch Seavey's team at the 2011 Iditarod (Photo by Dana Orlosky)

And it’s one of the beautiful things about being a teacher that you can bring your passions into the classroom and turn them into lessons. My students and I are immersed in all things Iditarod right now, watching a documentary of the 2008 race, following  the teams online, and completing related lessons in Social Studies, Literature, and Math. Each student has researched and chosen a musher to follow, and every day we move our musher tags to the appropriate checkpoint on the giant map in our classroom.

They are SO into it!

One of the books I read and loved when I was running dogs was Winterdance - The fine Madness of Running the Iditarod, by Gary Paulsen. If you like adventure stories, you should definitely read this memoir. Paulsen is best known as a Newberry Award winning author of middle grade fiction (Hatchet, anyone?), but did you know he ran the Iditarod? As part of our Iditarod unit, my students and I are reading Woodsong, the middle grade version of Winterdance. Whether written for children or adults, his books are incredible.

Lance Mackey's dogs at the 2011 Iditarod (Photo by Dana Orlosky)

So, let’s take a look at some comparisons of Ultrarunning and dog sledding.


  • Long runs through day and night
  • Consumption of many calories by athletes
  • Lack of sleep and hallucinations
  • Wonderful and tireless volunteers
  • Belt buckle for finishing
  • Training is important, but experience and tenacity may be even more so


Ultrarunning: Two legs
Dogsledding: 34 legs

Ultrarunnig: GU
Dogsledding: Frozen fish

Ultrarunning: Dave Mackey
Dogsledding: Lance Mackey

Ultrarunning: The race doesn’t start until Foresthill.
Dogsledding: The race doesn’t start until the Yukon River.

Ultrarunning: Shoes
Dogsledding: Booties

Ultrarunning: Hydration pack, electrolyte pills, Clif bar, rain jacket
Dogsledding: Snowshoes, axe, frozen meat, parka

Ultrarunning: Athletes weigh in at a few aid stations
Dogsledding: Volunteer vets perform hundreds of vet checks at every check point

Ultrarunning: Gordy Ainsleigh
Dogsledding: Leonhard Seppala

How about some analogies?

Western States is to the Iditarod as Hardrock is to the Yukon Quest.

Ann Trason is to Susan Butcher as Scott Jurek is to JeffKing.

Well, you get the idea, right? Although these two sports exist in two different worlds, they have more in common than most people realize.

For me, dog sledding has this almost magical appeal because it combines some of my favorite things: endurance, the wilderness, running, and dogs. As much as I love running myself, there is something so appealing about being a part of a team. And make no mistake – musher and dogs have an incredible bond and work as a team.

If you can’t tell, I really miss running dogs. If you ever get the chance to drive a dog sled team – and I mean drive the team, not ride in the sled – don’t pass it up! Being a musher is a much bigger lifestyle commitment than being an ultrarunner, but of course, the greater the challenge, the better the reward.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Iditarod and dog sled racing, you can follow the race online at They have an extensive website! I also urge you to read Winterdance, by Gary Paulsen. It’s an entertaining read, and you’ll learn a good deal about running dogs. Finally, there is a great documentary from the 2008 race called “Iditarod: The Toughest Race on Earth,” and it’s excellent. If you have a Netflix subscription, it’s available to stream instantly. It’s quite long, but I even watched it with my students, and they couldn’t get enough of it.

Aliy Zirkle at the start of the 2011 Iditarod (Photo by Dana Orlosky)

I’ll be watching the rest of the race as it unfolds online. The musher I chose to follow with my class, Dallas Seavey, is currently in 5th. (Incidentally, he’s ahead of every musher chosen by my students. Not that I’m competitive about it or anything.) I’d love to see someone so young show the old men how it’s done. I’m also rooting for a few of the other contenders, like Aliy Zirkle, and the sentimental favorite, DeeDee Jonrowe. It’s been a really tight race so far, and it could belong to absolutely anyone. I can’t wait to see how it plays out!

Dallas Seavey's team at the 2011 Iditarod (Photo by Dana Orlosky)


  1. I personally think I was a sled dog in another life. :)

  2. I can't believe how much cool stuff you've done, good grief! I love it.

    Last year, Geof and I became totally glued to the TV watching the 2008 documentary you mentioned, and we watched another one, too...for 2009? Lance Mackey won both, I remember that :) But mostly I remember LOVING every second of those docs!

    1. Paige - Yeah, my students loved all the drama between Jeff King and Lance Mackey in that 2008 documentary. Of course, athletic competitions make for great drama! I didn't know there was one on a more recent year. I'll have to look into that.

      Mitch and Dallas Seavey have now moved into first and second, respectively. You've got to wonder what it's like to have father and son out there competing with each other for the win!

  3. I also love the Iditarod. The girls and I are sitting on the couch with the laptop watching as Aliy came into Unalakleet first. One of my favorite memories of living in Anchorage was getting to watch the start of the Iditarod and seeing Susan Butcher and Rick Swenson. Another great book that you may already know about is The Cruelest Miles about the diphtheria outbreak in Nome. It goes into more detail about Seppala. I think it's great you're bringing it all into your classroom. Passion is contagious.

    1. Oh wow - I think that would be so cool to watch any part of the race in person! One day I would love to go up to Alaska to see it.

  4. I taught the Inuit when I lived on an Alaskan island and we all developed "mush fever." Thanks for such a thorough comparison and the book recommendation. Will definitely check it out.

    1. Anne - I can imagint the whole state probably comes alive with "mush fever"! That's another difference from ultrarunning - those mushers become celebrities.

  5. Thank you So Much for the Winterdance recommendation! Great book to curl up with on this rainy L.A. day.

    1. Oh good, Vicki! I'm so glad you're enjoying it!

  6. Wonderful post! I just ordered the book too. Any chance you might try the ITI someday? Watching that from afar was fascinating a couple weeks ago.
    Thank you for the great info and pictures!

    1. I hope you love Winterdance like I do, Marcy! I don't think the ITI will really be my thing, although you never know. Running in snow is brutal. I think I'm more likely to give up my life, move to Alaska, buy a hundred sled dogs, and train for the Iditarod. (Seriously though, don't count that out.)

  7. Hi- found your page when I googled myself. Thanks for the photo credits. :) Loved your description of the dogs as children on the best Christmas ever. My two favorite Iditarod books are Winterdance and Back of the Pack by Don Bowers. He was training for the Iditarod while doing his student teaching.
    Best- Dana Orlosky