Iditarod -- Race Across Alaska
Training

Dogs and mushers take a break during the second day of the Iditarod in 2001. The dogs are resting on straw put out by the mushers. (Photo: Al Grillo/AP Wide World)
Dogs and mushers take a break during the second day of the Iditarod in 2001. The dogs are resting on straw put out by the mushers. (Photo: Al Grillo/AP Wide World)

The mushers spend months, even years, preparing both themselves and their dogs to race the Iditarod. Getting ready means preparing both physically and mentally for the toughness of the race. It is hard but fun work. Four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser and adventure writer Gary Paulson share their thoughts about the Iditarod experience.

Q: How do you train the dogs?
Martin Buser: The key word to any training is consistency—to set the same rules and expect the same performance all the time. We spend lots of time with the dogs, playing and cleaning and feeding and taking them out on the trail. The young dogs learn a lot from the older dogs, so in the autumn all the dogs are trained together. The puppies always have an experienced leader to help them learn the trail routine. We try to have them practice camping and making runs and resting so that when they get in the race they'll know exactly what to do.

Training the dogs is a lot of work, but it is really the fun part. I love being outdoors every day, seeing the awesome Alaskan scenery that changes with each day. The dogs love it, too. They like to see new places and new trails!

Q: How do you train yourself for the race?
Martin Buser: That's a year-round challenge, just focusing and playing mind games, playing "what if." You have to play mind games and set up challenges before they ever arrive. Even though my sled was not broken, I would say, "What if this breaks? What if my stove broke?" Throughout the year, you just challenge yourself with questions like that, so that if something does go wrong, you have at least mentally solved that challenge before.

Gary Paulsen: The prep occurs automatically because you run dogs to train for the race, and that toughens you up. I broke my left arm and my left leg while running dogs and doing the training. I think that by the time you get to the point where you are going to run the race, you have to be qualified. In the past you just had to get three mushers to sign for you. They had to be mushers who had finished the race. They would have to say you would be all right. Now you have to finish smaller races and qualify.

Q: What characteristics do you feel a person participating in the Iditarod must have?
Gary Paulsen: Sadly, one of the primary things is money. It costs a great deal of money to run the race. The other thing is that when I first ran it, I called a guy named Pim White, and he said, "Get good dogs." For the individual himself or herself, you just need to be really, massively determined. It is so easy to quit, and so many do, even during training. It takes determination. People in Alaska call it being tough, but I think what it is is a core determination—the drive to keep going no matter what.

Q: What did you learn from competing in the Iditarod?
Gary Paulsen: I learned a great deal about myself, what I was capable of, what my body was capable of-both in strength and in weaknesses. I learned to deal with my own weaknesses so that I could work with them. Now I have a boat that I have taken from California to Fiji and then to Hawaii, and a lot of what I learned in the Iditarod helped me.

Q: What's the best part of being a musher?
Martin Buser: The most fun to me is raising, training, and teaching my dogs to be great athletes. I enjoy working with them. I enjoy teaching them things. It's the greatest job in the world because I can just play with animals.

I love to be a musher because I get to spend all the time I want with my animals and work with them on a daily basis. I also get to travel through the most beautiful countryside with my animals.