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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: 8 / 8)

Champion Dog-Sled Racer

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  Susan Butcher

You've won the Iditarod four times. But what about the other side? What about failure? How do you deal with that?

Before I won my first Iditarod, I was trying very hard to do so. And I had a very fast team, well conditioned, well trained. But I kept coming in second in more races than I care to remember. Clearly, some essential element was missing. I feel it was the winning spirit and vision. I would often finish in a race an hour or a minute or a split second behind someone else, but I'd have the strongest and fastest team. So in 1986, I learned how to pull it all together. I told myself that not only could I win, but that I deserved to win. And that I could win today. I knew before that I "someday" would win the Iditarod, but I didn't see myself as a winner today. So I kept on failing. In 1986, I lived and breathed the vision of winning the Iditarod for the full year. And I held it 11 days into the Iditarod, where I was neck and neck with Joe Garnie, 44 miles from the finish line. I had less than 20 hours of sleep in 11 days. I had run up every hill between Anchorage and Nome. But Joe made a final push and passed me, gaining a two-minute lead. I was exhausted and demoralized, and said to myself, "Well, I guess second place isn't too bad." But then through the blur of fatigue, I remembered the vision of myself winning the 1986 Iditarod, and I knew this race could be mine alone. And so for the next 44 miles, I ran, pumped with one leg or pushed until I passed Joe and won my first Iditarod.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

I feel this same vision has seen me through many races, but clearly not all of them. It takes a lot more than vision.

In this most recent race in 1991, I finished the worst I have done since 1983, in any race of any distance. I finished third despite the fact that I trained myself and my team better than I have ever done before. Despite turning over every leaf in my preparation, I lost.

I was said to have the best team in the history of the Iditarod. And because of this, I ran a very aggressive race. But mother nature threw every curve at me and my team that she could. I ended up breaking trail for almost five hundred miles through windstorms, through new snow on the trail, and not physically exhausting my dogs, but mentally exhausting my dogs. We were constantly searching for the trail, giving them the commands for right and left.

It's a tough job to break trail for the rest of the teams. I still reached the village of White Mountain over one hour in front of my closest competitor. And this is seventy-seven miles from Nome. From there I went first into the eye of an arctic blizzard, and I struggled for six hours, losing and regaining the trail, until finally, because of the trust I had developed in my dogs, I knew that I could not ask them for anymore. So I lost.

Susan Butcher Interview Photo
I feel that because I challenge myself so often, sometimes I will fail. This is, to me, the essence of competition -- that there will be both winners and losers. But I have great faith in myself that I will turn this loss into something positive.

First, there are many lessons to be learned. One of my favorite lessons is best summed up in the words of an old Athabascan Indian who told me, "There are many hard things in life, but there is only one sad thing, and that is giving up." In addition, I feel that in failure, it is just another step in attaining my final goal. My goal was not to win the 1991 Iditarod only. My goal is to become the best long distance sled dog racer in the world. And really, failures, if anything, can be turned around into being one of the best things that happen to you in life.

As tragic as the loss of my dogs by the moose was for me, it certainly was a turning point. I had to look at what I was doing, and say that this brought me more pain then I'd ever felt before. Having put my beloved dogs in a situation where two of them were killed, mourning the loss of them. Did I really want to run the Iditarod again? And was it worth putting myself in these positions and not winning?

I had come to the realization that, yes, with the hundreds of thousands of miles that I had mushed, this had only happened once, was not going to be a common occurrence, and it never happened again. It really taught me a new dedication to what I was doing. And I think out of this failure in 1991, I will again gain a new dedication. One more step up the ladder. Not, perhaps, just toward running the Iditarod, but to, perhaps, the next step in my life. It's often the failures that you learn more from than the wins, or reaching one's goals.

So, what's left for you? What's next?

I have many years of racing left in me, but I also want to raise a family. I am thirty-six years old at this time, so it's important that soon I start my family. But I can race afterwards, a little bit during the early years of raising children. In addition, I am getting more and more interested in the research and development of where the sport of sled dog racing is going, in the care of canines and felines and all pets in general, and in the education of the public as to how they should be caring for the pets; and the education of the public as to what we should be doing with nature, and with the wildlife in particular. However, I will never leave my lifestyle of dog mushing. It is inherent to me now -- will always be the main basis of what makes up my daily satisfaction, my daily contentment with life.

How is life different living in a place like Eureka? How are priorities different than for people living in cities?

The most wonderful one is that the weather -- what mother nature is doing -- dictates your entire life. And this is so much a part of my life, I don't understand it not being. Because I often have commitments to somebody on the outside world, I find that the rest of the world is not like that. When they ask me to come and do a speaking engagement on March the third, at three o'clock, they rarely understand when I say, "I'll be there -- weather permitting." I am not saying that I won't give it my absolute all to get there, but sometimes you merely cannot get out. You can't get a helicopter; you can't get a plane. No amount of money can move me from the spot that I may be in. In fact, the best method out of there is a dog team. But that's going to be slow and sure, and if I've got a hundred miles to go, I'm not going to be able to do it in the hour that they need me to rush off and get down to California, or something. So that I think is great. Your life, your daily life, is dictated by what the weather is doing. Your sense that you have to rely completely on yourself, that there are no people to turn to, is an incredibly satisfying feeling. And once you become content with it, I think that people would find that they have a whole lot more self-esteem and self-confidence that is built by knowing that you can depend on yourself and not on somebody else.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

And then, perhaps as you learn to depend on people for certain things, as I am depending on more and more people, my husband and many other people in my life now, more than I used to, I still have all that initial self confidence, which is that they could disappear, and I'd still be fine. As much as I wouldn't like it, I'm still fine. And that sense is really a wonderful sense. So I think that's a lot of what Eureka brings to me.

Susan Butcher Interview Photo
The lack of television, the lack of outside stimulus is really what people should experience sometime in their lives, because I find I have such a sense of well-being and understanding of what is going on in my life. And if there is something tragic going on, I will be very depressed, very unhappy. But there is a cause. There is cause and effect out there.

On the other hand, I've gone in to Anchorage and had lunch with a friend who is just feeling dragged down and doesn't really know why. Yet during the lunch, she tells me about a motorcyclist who came by in the morning while she was driving to work and gave her the finger, the bus driver who wouldn't give her the correct change. All this stuff. Well, it's depressing. Yet people think: "This is just part of life, I'm supposed to take it. I'm a career woman. I'm going off to work. My husband and I are getting along. And my career is moving along, so why am I depressed?"

Or they watch the news, or some horrible horror movie at night. These things affect us greatly, and people don't give them credit. And if these people could get away from it for a while -- I'm not saying that they should be negated from people's lives -- but they could learn how much effect these things have on daily life. And I enjoy the lack of that type of effect.

What advice do you have for young people?

I feel very fortunate that from a very early age I knew what I wanted to do. And I know that many people of 18, 24, 30 years old, still have not really reached a passion the way I had a passion at a very young age. But whenever you do find something -- maybe it's not as passionate for you as dog mushing has been for me -- but the fact that you have any interes. that is what you should go with. And particularly if you have a passion, no matter how many people criticize that passion, no matter if you cannot see the link between how what you are going to do is going to benefit others, I can promise you if you do anything well, it will benefit others. So you have to go with your dream, which is certainly what I have done, which has brought my life great fulfillment.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

I have ended up being able to be a role model for other people and to be very helpful for a lot of people. When I initially saw dog mushing, I did not see how it could benefit other people. But in the end I will work it, so it can give as much benefit to my career, to my life, to as many other people as I can affect. So I think... I do believe in luck. A lot has been said that there is luck here and there, but I believe that you make your own luck. Those that are best prepared have the best luck.

Educate yourself well. Just keep your eyes opened. It isn't really that you need a Ph.D. I did not end up going on and finishing college. I took a lot of courses. I am learning as much today as I learned when I left high school. I have my eyes opened constantly; I take courses; I read books. I am always there so that if something happens, my mind is ready to absorb it, take advantage of it, make my own luck. So everybody makes their own luck. There is bad luck; there is good luck, but mostly... Be prepared. Keep your mind open. You can be ready for anything that comes along.

It does take hard work and dedication to reach anything. And if it doesn't... If you do fall into something that is just pure luck, you will never have the same type of satisfaction as something that you really feel that you had to work for and achieve and got.

I think it's important to find something that is a really hard challenge for yourself, and when you reach the age of fifty, you will not feel that you should have done something better with your life. Even if you are a millionaire, or billionaire, you may be an unsatisfied one. And that is something that only time can tell. Each of us has to go through that, really, and experience it. But that has certainly been my experience in life; the more I put into any individual accomplishment, the more I have gotten out of it.

Susan Butcher Interview Photo
Some young people don't have as strong passions as I did, and because even with the strong passions that I had, I did not know whether I was going to be a solo around-the-world sailor. I did not know if I was going to be a dog musher or a farmer with a bunch of cows. I didn't know exactly where my passion was going to lead me. Open yourself for all of the challenges that come along, and don't worry too much about each decision that comes along in your life. You don't have to make the perfect decision.

I do not feel that dog mushing was the only thing that could have brought me as much joy as I get now. I feel that I could have gone into many different fields, and been just as happy as I am now. I never belabored any one decision too much because if you do, you often miss the opportunity. So if opportunity rings, it sounds interesting, whether it's to go to a special school, or to go on some adventure, just do it. If it sounds good, just do it. Especially when you are young. That's the time to do it.

Get out there and experience as many different things as you can -- and a lot of them should be outside of the formal education field. There is a lot that college can teach you, but there is a lot to be learned in the real world. Better to learn it early than to wait until you are twenty-four and all of a sudden step out into the real world and say "Now what?" A year off from college somewhere in between won't hurt at all.

Is there any book that influenced you?

When I was still in Massachusetts and had just vaguely gotten an inkling of dog mushing in the wilderness, I read a story about Eskimos up in the Northwest Territory, and I was really thrilled with their lifestyle. The Eskimos in Alaska were a lot of what drew me there, and are still one of my passions today -- understanding their culture, how they live, and how they are dealing with being thrown into the twentieth century so rapidly in just four generations.

I might have guessed Jack London's, Call of the Wild.

I read Jack London, and I loved him. There are so many differences between what he wrote about, and what the norm is in dog mushing. I still love his stories as much as I ever did, but I also see discrepancies between the romantic stories that he told and what reality is You know, he often had vicious dogs, but the dogs are actually docile, wonderful pets. I find myself having to re-educate the public from what they learned from Jack London. But other than that, I adore him.

Are we going to read a book by Susan Butcher?

Someday. When I find the time. Perhaps when I am pregnant.

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