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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: 6 / 8)

Champion Dog-Sled Racer

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  Susan Butcher

Susan Butcher Interview Photo
Your encounter with the crazed moose that killed some of your dogs, is that the worse thing that has ever happened to you in the Iditarod?

That is definitely the worst thing, as far as that it ended with tragedy. However my close calls, my encounters with open water, have been muchmore severe and have been much closer to death for me and/or the team than this was. For the full team this one ended very tragically. But I've got to say, I'm a lot more scared of open water than I am of moose today.

You've told a story on occasion about a time when a dog disobeyed your order and it saved your life. Is that true?

The most important thing that I believe my job is, is to train my dogs to have a "trust-and-be-trusted" relationship. This starts with me working with the puppies, training them to always trust that I will never ask them to go any further or faster than they are capable of; and yet, everyday, in some way, I will challenge them perhaps to go a little bit farther than they know they are capable of doing. However, if they show me they are not capable of something, I'm there to comfort and praise them, to give them whatever they need. If they do accomplish it, I'm there to praise them. I do this sometimes by just letting the puppies run loose, and sometimes the dog team. That trust is fairly easy to give to them. The other side of it is that I need to trust in them, trust that they are smarter in the wilderness than I am. I will many times have to depend on their lives, and my life, in their knowledge. And one of the first ways I found this out was after just two years of living in Alaska. I was traveling on a trail I had been using all winter long which crossed a frozen river, and my lead dog, Teckla at the time, took off to the right. I told her to go back on to the trail. She took off to the right again. This dog never disobeyed me, and I could not understand why she was trying to do it. So I finally gave her her head, she pulled the team off to the side just as the trail collapsed into the river, and we all would have drowned. So she had a sixth sense that saved our lives.

It's mutual trust. Theirs in my guidance, and mine in their ability and instincts, in the wilderness, that has saved our lives many times.

Has the thought ever crossed your mind, out there, during the toughest part of any of these races, that you just want to give up, just quit?

No. Absolutely not.

I do not know the word "quit." Either I never did, or I have somehow abolished it from my language. If you allowed it to enter your mind, I think during the worst times when you are so exhausted, and so cold, and the dogs may be getting tired towards the end of a four or five-hour run, you'd quit. You would. You have to see only that you are going into this specific race, whether it be a 300 or a 500 or 1,000-mile race, or individual training run. You are going to complete this. Then, if some force, such as the moose, becomes so great, it's going to be obvious that you should quit. So you can't think about "quit." I just don't think it even enters my mind. I am always so keyed up for the challenge, and not only in a racing situation where it would be quite obvious, because for the Iditarod I have trained for -- let alone many years -- an entire year for this race. Just because I got a little cold and tired would be a stupid reason to give up an entire year's work. But even moreso, I think the examples that show my lack of willingness to quit would be certain training runs. Runs where I may be out on a 500-mile trip, there is no reason why I have to make it from point A to point B. There is nothing driving me but my own desire to get there. And where I am getting isn't even an important thing to me. It somehow is just to have that challenge. I have been known to walk in front of my team for 55 miles with snowshoes to lead them through snowstorms in non-racing situations, where I could have just as easily radioed for a plane to come and get me. Instead, I will take the other way out. And it's certainly given my life incredible fulfillment.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

What's the funniest thing that's ever happened to you out there?

I love this story. Because of the lack of sleep, we do get to the point of hallucinations. I have learned now to take little 15-minute catnaps and how to stay mostly in control of these hallucinations. But my first years of racing, I was horrible. I had no idea how to sleep. I would usually go for two or three days without a single nap, and then I'd sleep for five hours. So I was not doing it right. And at one point in the race, I was traveling along, and I thought there were four of us on the sled and we each had a job. My job was to lean to the right if the sled would tip to the left. Another person's job was to lean to the left if the sled would tip to the right. One person was supposed to use the brake, and I never did figure out what the fourth person was doing on the sled. But here we were going between Slatta Crossing and Ruby, over these huge hills, and I was doing a really good job in my job. Every time the sled would lean to the left, I'd lean to the right. But the others, they weren't doing a good job at all, and we would tip over! And I would get my face completely full of snow, and you would think that this would wake me up out of this. I would throw the sled back up and yell at these non-existent people and off we'd go. I later found out by looking at my watch that this went on for almost seven hours. The way it stopped was I was going along and I fell off the sled, in my hallucination, and the team was running away from me. There's a rope that drags behind the sled we call the snub line. Well, I grabbed the snub line, and I am yanking it, and yelling, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!" and they were disappearing off into the distance. I finally woke up because I did not have a hold of the snub line. Indeed I had lost the sled, and we have a headlight that we use on our head, and it has a cord on it, and I had a hold of the cord, and I was yanking my head up and down yelling "Whoa!" and I woke up to see my team disappearing into the wilderness. And I said, "This is bad. This is not good." Luckily, they were as tired as I was. I told them to "Whoa!" and they stopped. I went up there, we camped, and I slept. But definitely, the hallucinations are pretty hysterical.

Susan Butcher Interview Photo
In one race, Joe Garnie and I were neck and neck -- we often are -- and traveling along in the northern arctic, up by Nome. The arctic tree line well below us. There are absolutely no trees up there. Well, I was in the lead and we got off the trail. I went up to the front of my team, and we were in a thick forest, and I had to lead my dogs through this forest. Joe came up behind me and said, "What are you doing?" and I said, "Well, I'm leading the team through these trees back to the trail." He said, "Susan, there are no trees here." And I said, "I know, but I can't make them go away." And he said, "Neither can I." We both were seeing the same trees. We could not make our minds get rid of them and make a straight line to the trail. We wove our way through these trees back to the trail. So it's quite amazing what exhaustion can do.

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