With the 50th annual Iditarod having begun in Anchorage, Alaska just a few days ago, I think it’s a good time to talk about the race and a woman who, at 33 years of age, has already run it a few times.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term “Iditarod,” it’s a race that covers 1,000 miles of terrain through mountain ranges, forest, frozen rivers and tundra — not the most comfortable of conditions — run by a musher who competes with his/her team of sled dogs. In the sled, the musher carries hundreds of pounds of dog food (each dog can eat up to 10,000 calories per day when racing), as well as first aid necessities. This is not a sport for the faint-hearted.
Rachael Scdoris grew up around sled dogs. Having been a racer, her father discovered that in tourism he could make a modest living and so he started offering dog sledding excursions in Oregon. Rachael spent weekdays with him and weekends with her mom, until one day she asked if she could switch so that she’d be able to hang out with the dogs more often.
Rachael’s three-year-old son, an “adorable ball of energy,” as she calls him, claims that he’ll run and win Iditarod one day. Funny thing is, Rachael said the same around that age (and she did start learning to mush at age three). She ran her first small race at 11 years old with three dogs and finished in fourth place. The following year she raced again, with four dogs, and won. In 2005, nine years after her first race, Rachael ran Iditarod with a team of 16 dogs.
The first legally-blind musher to finish Iditarod (she placed 57 among 72 finalists), Rachael Scdoris says there are challenges in everything, and challenges are of course unique to the individual experiencing them, but this ride — this career choice — has been relatively smooth for her because the groundwork was laid out by her father.
In her last Iditarod race in 2009, she finished in 45th place. And the only difference, she says, between her and a musher with 20/20 vision is that she needs to run with someone else — and clarifies that she can run the team just fine alone, but can’t always find the trail on her own. When she decided this is what she wanted to do, she spent the first couple years figuring out exactly how it would all work, and the next couple years convincing people that it would work and that she was, in fact, a competent musher despite her challenge.
In 1985, the year Rachael was born, the “turnabout in dog-sled racing came” in the Iditarod, according to this New York Times article. In sled dog racing, there are always more men than women. But it’s “certainly not the good old boys club it used to be,” Rachael says. A few years back, she took over dad’s tour business completely, and although she misses racing, she still gets to do it a bit. The business is in a good place and Rachael is confident that the crew is in such a groove, she can walk away now and then without worrying too much.
So in a couple weeks, Rachael will go to Yellowknife, California to compete in the Yellowknife Dog Derby and out of 10 teams that competed in Yellowknife last year, three or four of these groups (so roughly 35%) were women-driven. It’s really cool, she says, that at this point, pretty much everyone — male or female — competes on an even plane.
To any girls or young women who want to follow in Rachael’s footsteps, she had some words of encouragement. Whether racing Iditarod or running a business similar to hers:
“I would say, I was fortunate to be born into this. It’s probably harder than ever now to start a kennel and so my advice, whether starting a kennel or racing, is to start very, very small. Work with somebody else first; learn the ropes and then if you do branch out, start even smaller with just two dogs. It’s incredibly hard just because it’s a lot of round-the-clock work. If you’re going to do it, make sure you really love it and don’t expect to be wealthy.”
Rich in experiences, though?
“Absolutely,” she confirms. And at the end of the day, that’s really all that matters.
Feature Image via AP Photo/Al Grillo