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If you like Susan Butcher's story, you might also like:
Sylvia Earle,
Jane Goodall,
Dorothy Hamill,
Edmund Hillary
and Craig McCaw

Susan Butcher also appears in the videos:
You Can Do Anything,
Risk-Taking: An Ingredient for Success

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Susan Butcher
Susan Butcher
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Susan Butcher Interview (page: 3 / 8)

Champion Dog-Sled Racer

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  Susan Butcher

What does the Iditarod mean to you?

Susan Butcher Interview Photo
Had the Iditarod not been happening, I would have just been dog mushing throughout Alaska and doing adventures using the dogs. The Iditarod race was started by a man named Joe Redington, Sr., and it was a great vehicle for me, a chance to have a livelihood through the prize money, through sponsorships, through the dog sales.

Did it ever occur to you that this is something a woman doesn't do?

It never did occur to me that this was something a woman shouldn't do. There were no competitive women racing at that time in long distance racing. We have sixty to seventy mushers every year, and more than half of them go on a camping trip to complete the course. There were three women who had completed it by the time I started, but I had a very different idea, and wanted to go in there competitively because I had a very strong competitive nature. I was astounded and very unhappy my first year, when I found that there was some resistance from my fellow mushers because I was a woman. But what I did was to basically ignore it, and just go forward.

it wasn't until about six or seven years later -- having fought the problems and some of the prejudices that were very strong there and knocking me in the face, and I was just refusing to look at them -- that I was speaking with a woman, and saying that I am so tired of certain things, and explaining them to her. And she said, "Don't you understand that by going and breaking trials and setting standards that you are bound to butt into these things? And it is harder for you to do it." And I had never even thought of that before. I did not specifically set out to be a pioneer for women. To me, I was always very aware that I was a woman, and I was very aware that I was the only woman being competitive. But I also saw it was that I was being a human being, and that's how I wanted to be accepted. And I didn't see why people couldn't accept that right away. But it wasn't until I became accepted as well as I have now that I realize the struggle that I did go through.

What does it take, one, to be a dog musher, and two, to be competitive in something like the Iditarod?

To be a dog musher -- what we call recreational mushers -- is not a big deal. It really just takes time, and if you don't want to go a thousand miles in March, like we do, you don't have to put a lot of training into it. You can use the dogs for your enjoyment or when you want to travel, and they don't have to be heavily trained because they are such incredible animals.

But to be a racer is a totally different thing. The competition is extremely fierce. Getting fiercer every year. You have to have more dogs. You have to have, in essence, a bench. If you are going to need twenty dogs for the team, you have to have say, at least thirty because you have to have some reserves. If you are going to buy them all, you only have to own perhaps thirty. If you are going to raise them all like I do, you have to own somewhere around one hundred, so then you just are quadrupling the formula. And most important is the care that you are giving these dogs.

They are no longer dogs; they are professional athletes, so they need sports medicine in addition to regular veterinary medicine. They need the best nutrition possible. They need training on a daily basis from the age of one or two days old until the time that you retire them. It's a totally different story between racing and recreational mushing.

How would you describe your relationship to these dogs?

My relationship is extremely close. I have often described it as... that they are my friends, my family, and my workmates. So they get my attention around the clock. They are of total importance to me, because certainly during those years when I lived alone, they were often my only friends. Now I have my husband, and a few young people working for me, but they are still often my closest friends. And then, they are my livelihood. We work together as a team on a daily basis. I train 12 to 16 hours a day, usually seven days a week. And only when I am away -- perhaps 30 days a year -- am I ever off of that schedule. So I am really spending all of my time with these dogs. And I raise them all from puppies. So they are my family, they are very much like children.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Tell us what it takes to prepare for the Iditarod.

For me to be able to win the Iditarod, here in the early '90s, I have to train at least 11-and-a-half months a year, and this is basically seven days a week.

I am training myself through running, cycling, weight lifting program, and then for about nine months of the year -- eight to nine months of the year -- I am on a sled, and I am mushing 50 to 70 miles a day. And that, in addition to caring for the dogs, and hauling the water from the creek -- we still don't have running water -- and heating with wood and stuff, my lifestyle is keeping me fit. As far as the dogs go, from the time the dogs are four months of age, they go in harness, pulling either a sled in the wintertime or a four-wheeled cart in the summertime, three to four times a week for the rest of their lives. So each dog in my kennel needs to go three to four times a week. As puppies, say two to ten miles, and as they advance, from ten to 90 miles a day, depending on the length that I am going to be running them. And during this process, I am physically conditioning them, I am mentally training them, and I am educating them. And all are equally important, and all are very exciting because I am at the leading edge of my sport.

Susan Butcher Interview Photo
Now dog mushing is a very old lifestyle, but dog sled racing is a relatively new sport, really just twenty years old. So advances are being made very rapidly, and there are no books to read; we cannot find out what the next move is, so that is one of the things that keeps it so exciting for me. I am always having to figure out new conditioning methods, new training methods to educate the dogs; and then probably of foremost interest and importance to me would be the mental training -- the trust that I develop with them. The winning spirit that I enhance in them and bring forward. I am really looking for the mental athlete when I pick my pups. I do not always pick the best physical specimen if it doesn't have that extra athletic heart.

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This page last revised on Feb 28, 2011 18:30 EST
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