Woman training for the Iditarod ... in NJ?

February 15, 2008 11:25:39 AM PST
A state known for the Turnpike, big hair and an abundance of oil refineries isn't the easiest place to pursue the sport of sled dog racing. That isn't stopping Kim Darst.

She is training in northern New Jersey for the Iditarod, a roughly 1,000-mile race through the Alaskan wilderness so challenging that fewer people have finished it than have climbed the world's highest peak, Mount Everest.

Race organizers believe that if Darst completes the race in 2009 she will be the first New Jerseyan to do so.

"Not many people do it, and there's something to be said for that ... I want to say that I did it," Darst said. "I want to personally say that I can do it physically and mentally."

The 38-year-old has always been interested in offbeat hobbies and believes in taking them as far as she can. After a helicopter trip over the Grand Canyon as a sophomore in high school, she became obsessed with flying and earned a license to pilot a helicopter when she was 17. She went on to fly fixed-wing aircraft, become a flight instructor, fly a gyroplane and pilot jets for a commercial airline.

It was the father of one of her students who suggested a trip to the Northwest in 1994, telling her "You belong in Alaska."

It was there that she became acquainted with sled dog racing and the mystique of the Iditarod.

"Every place you would go to they talked about the Iditarod, they showed films of the Iditarod, and I said 'I have to try that,"' Darst said. In 1995, she purchased a Samoyed - a type of dog originally from Siberia that's white and fluffy and often used in sled dog races - and hitched it up to a toy sled.

Darst was hooked after her first ride. She began competing in short races of a few miles and eventually worked her way up to Iditarod qualifiers that cover hundreds of miles.

The Iditarod, which was first held in 1973, commemorates the 1925 delivery by sled dogs of lifesaving diphtheria serum to Nome, an isolated village on the Alaskan coast.

The dogs are guided by verbal commands from the musher such as "Gee" for right or "Haw" for left. At checkpoints along the trail, the mushers and dogs eat and sleep, and veterinarians examine the animals. Sick or hurt dogs are left at the checkpoint, and later flown back to their owners. The musher can use up to 16 dogs to pull the sled, which carries the musher and supplies, and must finish with at least six dogs.

The top competitors, who tend to finish in about 9-10 days, take home tens of thousands of dollars, but "back-of-the-packers" like Darst, can expect to finish in 15 or 16 days. They receive some money for finishing, but generally compete just for the right to say they've finished what is billed as "The World's Last Great Race."

Prospective mushers have to complete at least two qualifying races - which Darst has done - totaling 500 miles. They're judged on how well they finish and how they treat their dogs.

Darst's home in Blairstown is testament to her obsession. The walls are covered with photos from sled dog races and pictures with the late Susan Butcher, a four-time Iditarod winner and Darst's mentor. Even her reading material - "Murder on the Iditarod Trail," for example - is related to the world's most famous sled dog race.

Darst has been training in rural Warren County in northwestern New Jersey, perhaps the closest thing to wilderness in the country's most densely populated state.

New Jersey poses a host of challenges Alaska mushers don't face.

Since the dogs need temperatures 50 degrees or lower to run, that means a later start to the training season. When there's no snow, which is often, a motorless ATV substitutes for a sled.

Darst also must transport the dogs to a wooded trail. In Alaska, competitors usually hook up their dogs in their yard and run off into the wilderness.

During training, Darst's mother drives ahead to each place where the trail intersects with a road, and stops traffic so the dogs and the sled can cross safely.

It's a far cry from the conditions Darst will face in Alaska.

That trail includes a climb from 77 feet above sea level to an elevation of 3,771 feet, as well as the steep trip back down, described as a "huge roller coaster," by race spokesman Chas St. George. The teams cross wide-open sections of the Alaska wilderness without mountains or trees to block the wind and travel along the coastline of the Norton Sound. Wet winds batter them all the way to the finish in Nome, which is at a latitude that is more than 2,000 miles north of Blairstown.

The mushers have been known to smash their sleds into trees, break bones and get frostbite. In 2004, Doug Swingley, a four-time Iditarod winner, pulled out of the race with frostbitten corneas after taking off his goggles to see the trail when the wind chill factor was 90 below zero.

Randy Chappel, a financial manager who in 2003 became the first Texan to finish the race, said there's also a psychological toll. During the race, the mushers are operating on far less sleep than usual, pushing themselves physically and experiencing "every possible human emotion," Chappel said.

"It's easy to get those emotions exaggerated in your head," he said.

None of this sits easy with Darst's 65-year-old mother.

"I've been worried about her, because I wouldn't want to see her get hurt or get into trouble that she couldn't get out of out there," Della Mae Darst said, sitting in her Blairstown home. "I just tell her 'Be careful."'

Between now and the 2009 Iditarod, the biggest challenge for Darst may be money. Sled dog racing is not a cheap hobby. St. George, the Iditarod spokesman, estimates it can cost between $50,000 and $100,000 just to get a team qualified to run the race.

The entry fee is $3,000.

Darst estimates she spends about $1,500 a month on food, supplements and veterinary bills. Then there's the booties, harnesses, sleds and other equipment. Buying a leader - a dog that runs at the front of the pack and is trained to follow commands - can cost as much as $5,000, and even the dogs at the back of the pack can cost hundreds of dollars, Darst said.

Darst has some sponsors but pays most of her expenses with money she makes teaching flying.

Next fall, she plans to train in Michigan, where it will be colder than New Jersey. In January, she'll head to Alaska to train before the March race.

Some animal rights activists have complained that the Iditarod dogs are driven to the point of exhaustion and sometimes death.

But Darst says the animals would never run so hard if they didn't enjoy the experience. Before a recent training run, the dogs are generally quiet as they're put in their harnesses.

But as the dogs are hooked up to the gangline linking them to the ATV on a snowless day, the cacophony of barking builds as the animals pull at the harness to get going.

When Darst lets go of the ATV's brakes, the animals fall silent as they begin to run. Darst experiences the same peacefulness she enjoys when flying.

"When you're standing on the runners (of the sled) and seeing (the dogs) enjoy themselves and running down a pretty trail that's peaceful, and seeing the countryside like nobody else sees it, it's pretty nice," she said.


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