Student Sled Dog Racer Has Eyes on Iditarod
Lisa Dietzen was in kindergarten when she first heard the story of Balto, the black Siberian husky who led a team on the final leg of the 1925 serum run from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska. Balto came to symbolize the heroic efforts of 150 dogs involved in a relay-style delivery of antitoxin desperately needed to combat a diphtheria outbreak. The Iditarod sled dog race in March commemorates the run and Dietzen is determined to compete in the 2017 installment of what is trademarked as the “Last Great Race on Earth.”
“My elementary librarian still remembers that I raised my hand after she read the book and announced that I was going to do that someday,” Dietzen said. “I’m sure she was skeptical at the time. How many 6-year-olds actually go through with what they say about their futures? But I found her email address in 2009 and wrote her a note that said, ‘Guess what I’m doing?’”
Many children have been captivated by the story, but few have demonstrated its impact with such tenacity and perseverance—Balto’s most inspiring traits—as Dietzen. Lacking dogs of her own as a youngster, she would hook up her guinea pig to a doll-sized sled and dangle a carrot just out of reach to get him moving through the house. Two cats eventually joined the team. Every winter, Dietzen made her own backyard course with checkpoints and role-played lead dog herself by pulling a sled around it. She enjoyed her first dogsled ride and watched a race at the local Winterfest celebration in her hometown of Kaukana, Wis. Dietzen spent 100 tedious hours in 7th grade building her first dogsled with the aid of a shop teacher and her dad. Made entirely of ash, it featured intricate cuts and grooves, with laced stitching that made it resemble “an old-style sled used to haul freight.” She once hooked up a friend’s two pet Siberian huskies to her creation for a preview of her future pursuits.
The dream did not diminish when Dietzen enrolled at Northern. A digital cinema major, she volunteered at the UP 200 and took the advice of some in the racing community to find a musher mentor. Jackie Winkowski and later David Gill agreed to serve in that role. Gill retired and sold some of his dogs, but Dietzen kept the majority and assumed the kennel in collaboration with the property owner and a handler. She has competed in several races covering various lengths, but prefers the distance category of 100 miles or more.
Last season, Dietzen finished first in the 12-dog Tahquamenon Country Sled Dog Race. She also completed two of the required three qualifiers for the Iditarod: the Seney 300 and the UP 200. This season, she is opting for shorter races (she finished 8th in the Midnight Run earlier this month) while she trains and races puppies who will likely comprise her Iditarod 2017 team. The final qualifier awaits her next season.
“Training for the Iditarod will require more back-to-back runs and camping because it’s a multi-stage event over 1,000 miles of challenging terrain. The winners finish in about eight days; for others, it’s between that and 14 days. It’s not even so much about physical training as it is mental toughness and preparedness. Going across a tundra isn’t a walk in the park. You want slightly bigger dogs (50-60 pounds) so you can pack more on them with a good coat to stay warm. You also want them to have a smooth, efficient and sustainable gait of about 9 miles an hour that synchs well with the other team members. The lead dog needs to obey commands, have good eyesight and a good nose to sense the direction of the trail, and should be eager to please.”
At nearly 5 years old, Nymph does double duty as both lead racing dog and service dog. Dietzen was diagnosed with dysautonomia, an umbrella term to describe several medical conditions that cause the autonomic nervous system to malfunction. If she gets dizzy and has balance issues—as she did once on the trail when her speed triggered a case of vertigo—Nymph helps to brace and stabilize her. If Dietzen passes out temporarily, Nymph will lie on her chest to redistribute blood to the head or fetch medications after she comes to, if needed.
Despite her health issues, Dietzen’s goal is to finish the Iditarod, even if it takes more than one attempt. Sled dog racing at that level consumes most of a musher’s life and is expensive. She said the winner’s purse of $70,000, though a noticeable increase from last year, barely covers annual food costs for a large, competitive kennel.
“Obviously we’re not in the sport for the money,” she said. “We depend on sponsor support and raise some money giving rides to people to help with kennel rent and food. I see myself doing this for a long time, but not necessarily at the Iditarod level. I just enjoy the animals and being outdoors. There’s nothing better than going out on a night run, turning off your headlamp and letting the moon guide you because it’s so bright and sparkling on the snow. You can hear the harnesses jingle, see the dogs’ breath and watch their rhythm as they work together as a team. It’s a magical experience. I used to be afraid of the dark. Dogsledding changed that.”
Dietzen said the school-musher balance became more challenging after she moved on site to manage Team Evergreen Kennel and assumed full responsibility for the dogs. She has been known to do required reading during a trail run. She tries to schedule classes two days a week, but will need to add a part-time job to the mix next fall to offset education and kennel costs. Dietzen expects to graduate in December.
A sled-view video of her Midnight Run start, adorable dog photos, a t-shirt fundraiser (above) and more information can be viewed here.