KLOSER GETS NORTHERN EXPOSURE
Mankind has pitted himself against the extremes of nature since the beginning of time. First for survival, and now for the pure sport of it. People willingly scale mountains, run marathons through the desert, take on raging rapids and sled through the wilderness in sub-zero temperatures.
Pat Kloser, MD, knows how thrilling such an adventure can be. This winter she was a passenger for 40 miles of Alaskas famous Iditarod race. Except for Australia, Ive been on every continent of the world, including Antarctica, says the associate professor of clinical medicine at UMDNJ-New Jersey Medical School. But being in the Iditarod was the trip of a lifetime.
Kloser bid for the chance to be in the race at a silent auction, held at an Explorers Club dinner she attended with her husband in New York City. Although her offer was generous, she was only the runner-up. A few weeks later, however, she received a call: The winner had declined when he realized he wouldn't be a participant for the entire race. Was she still interested? Kloser jumped at the chance.
Unsure of how to train for the event, she was referred by a friend to Dean Dufford, a ballet dancer at the Met, and, as she describes him, a magnificent athlete. He designed a body-building program to strengthen her upper body and leg muscles. You need the upper body strength to maneuver the team, or mush the dogs, as it's called, she explains. And you need strong legs to get around in the deep snow alongside the trail. The clinician also bought specially made clothing - from underwear to boots - that insulates against temperatures as low as minus 45 degrees.
Well prepared, Kloser went to Alaska a week early and spent time with musher Martin Buser, her chauffeur for the race. He, his wife and their two children live in Big Lake,185 miles northeast of Anchorage, where he raises his special Alaskan sled dogs. A veteran racer of 20 years, Buser is a three-time Iditarod winner. He happily taught Kloser the ins and outs of mushing the dogs. The lead dog is smartest and most experienced; he sniffs the trail, leads the way and makes all the stops and turns. The wheel dogs, as they are known, are the two closest to the sled. They must have strong hind quarters in order to turn the sled. They are also the most frequently injured. All the dogs wear specially designed booties to keep their feet covered and prevent them from getting cut by shards of ice. Like commanding a horse, Kloser explains, the dogs respond to gee and haw for right and left and whoa for stop. The musher must know how to lean from side to side on the runners, how to apply the brake - a square plate located between the runners that acts like a dredge - and how to anchor the sled in the snow.
A few days before the actual event, the physician went with Buser on a 32-mile trial run, during which she mushed the dogs alone for about nine miles of the trip. It's much more difficult than it looks. But its great fun. She also spent a day cross-country skiing with just her camera. It was the quietest of quiet, she says. You are all alone in this winter wonderland. Its just you and nature. It was almost like a religious experience.
The Iditarod has been held annually on the first weekend in March for nearly 30 years. It commemorates another type of race that took place back in the 1920s. Alaska was experiencing a diphtheria epidemic at the time, and a serum was critically needed in Nome. A dog-sled relay was set up between villages on the way to Nome. The lead dog on the last leg of the trip, which took a total of only five days, was the famed Balto, whose statue now stands in Central Park.
Todays race is 1,049 miles long - the 49 because Alaska is the 49th state - and follows closely the original route to Nome. It begins with a great deal of fanfare in Anchorage. There are people handing you hot coffee and hot dogs, and wishing you well. Its very exciting, Kloser says.
The sleds average about 10 miles an hour, so the entire race takes about 10 days to two weeks. Between 40 to 50 mushers from around the world - typically all men - usually participate. However, five women recently broke tradition by entering. Susan Butcher and Dee Dee Jonreau are two of the better-known mushers.
Each sled has one person and is pulled by a team of 16 or 18 dogs. It may only carry a pair of snow shoes, an ice ax, extra booties for the dogs, a pan to melt snow for drinking, and a one-day supply of food for the dogs and the driver. Additional food and straw, used for warmth at night by both the driver and the dogs, are dropped at designated sites along the way. There are also check points where vets examine the dogs to make sure they are fit to continue.
The main concern is the dogs, Kloser explains. Its just you and the dogs against nature. Without them, there's no hope for you. But they're well trained and they know what they're doing.
And the other major concern is, unquestionably, the cold. It was very, very cold, Kloser says. But you're dressed for it and theres so much going on and its so exciting, you dont even notice.
The magazine of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey