Why two mushers brave the elements to compete in Alaska’s Iditarod race

iStock/Thinkstock(ANCHORAGE, Alaska) -- Seventy-two mushers, between the ages of 20 and 63, are racing across the Alaskan wilderness -- 1,000 miles in total -- to win the prestigious 2017 Iditarod Trail International Sled Dog Race.

For some of this year's mushers, completing the race means more than taking home the title.

Cindy Abbott takes part in the grueling event as an affirmation of life after she was diagnosed with a rare and incurable disease.

Like Abbott, Alan Eischens has a bigger goal than finishing in the top percentile: He races to raise awareness for pediatric diseases.

"We do this for kids ... for us it's about the kids," he told ABC News.

Mushers, or drivers of a dogsled, train year-round for this annual competition, now in its 45th year. Humans and dogs alike are pushed to the limits physically and mentality. Agility, perseverance, stamina and mental fortitude (not to mention the ability to sustain frigid temperatures and dangerous weather conditions) are tested daily.

The Iditarod kicks off every March and draws entrants from all over the world, including countries such as Norway, England, France, Sweden, Hungary and Canada.

Abbott, 58, decided to uproot her life for dog racing. She and her husband, Larry, moved from southern California, where they were both college professors, to Wasilla, Alaska, so Abbott could focus on the sport.

Abbott was diagnosed with Wegener's Granulomatosis, a rare and incurable disease that causes inflammation of the blood vessels in the nose, sinuses, throat, lungs and kidneys, in 2007. She has become functionally blind in her left eye and takes a cocktail of medications to slow the disease's progression. Her health limitations have not stopped her from accomplishing great things, however. In 2010 she scaled Mount Everest, becoming the 40th American woman to do so.

As Abbott was driving to Anchorage last Friday, less than 24 hours before the race's 11-mile ceremonial start, she told ABC News that she has come a long way since learning how to mush six years ago. This year will be her fourth time competing in the Iditarod. Of the 72 mushers, she is one of 17 women.

"Every race is a challenge," she said. "It's really hard to run the dogs, to control that power. Each race is a personal accomplishment."

Abbott will bring 20 dogs with her to the race, though only 16 can run at a time. If she completes the arduous journey across Alaska, it will be her second time in four attempts. She "scratched" in 2013 and 2014 ("scratching" refers to a musher's decision to withdraw from the race, usually because of an injury or a broken sled) and was the last one to cross the finish line in 2015 with a time of 13 days, 11 hours, 19 minutes and 52 seconds. (Dallas Seavey, a four-time Iditarod champion, holds the record for the fastest time, finishing the 2016 race in eight days, 11 hours, 20 minutes and 16 seconds).

That year, 20 mushers dropped out. The extreme cold may have played a factor: Abbott said one night the temperature was negative 75 degrees -- excluding the wind chill factor. All the mushers suffered from frost bite in 2015, she said.

"I don't worry about the finish line; I worry about what's in front of me," she said. "Every race is different because of mother nature."

Eischens was a rookie musher in the 2015 Iditarod. But Eischens, 57, a longtime Alaska resident, was no stranger to the world of mushing; he served as a checker for the Tustumena 200 race for 15 years. In 2011 he and his wife Tangala opened the Double E Kennel in Wasilla, where he breeds and trains his Alaskan huskies. The kennel has grown to include 46 dogs and the two smartest -- a mother-daughter team named Margarita and Patches -- will lead him and the 14 other dogs to Nome, the last stop of the race.

Eischens trains his dogs in all conditions -- soft snow, deep snow, hard trails, in storms -- to prepare them -- and himself -- for what's ahead.

"The weather changes so fast ... you're out in the open, in the elements," he said. "The dogs will shut down if mushers mentally shut down."

All the mushers carry trackers to monitor their movements. Each musher also has an SOS transmitter that can be activated in case disaster strikes. Eischens almost scratched in 2016's race after his sled shattered.

"A competitor gave me an extra sled and that's how I finished," he said.

The sweat, toil and struggle to finish Iditarod almost pares in comparison to the cost of competing. Mushers had to pay a $4,000 entrance fee yet the actual cost can reach upwards of $100,000.

"It's horrifically expensive to maintain a kennel ... the cost is staggering," said Abbott.

The vet bills, the food (Abbott feeds her dogs human-grade meat), the supplies and gear quickly add up. Plus the costs of buying the dogs: Anywhere from $500 to $1,000 apiece.

Abbott said she will spend $70,000 to run in this year’s Iditarod, money that is being tapped from her retirement savings. When she was still living in California and flying to Alaska to train, she was spending close to $95,000 a year.

Many of the top ranked mushers have sponsors to help defray the costs, though there are doctors, dentists and morticians who are wealthy enough to mush without financial assistance, she said.

Eischens said he pays for his kennel and race fees in a multitude of ways. He is a vendor at a local Air Force base; works construction during the summer; and teams up with Kevin and Sheila Monson, owners of the Backcountry Warriors, a B&B in Willow, Alaska, to offer dog sledding excursions to tourists.

Every musher who completes the race will receive prize money; the amount is staggered for the first 30 finalists (mushers who place after 30th only receive $1,049). According to the Iditarod Trail Committee, the amount of this year’s prize is still being determined. In 2016, the winner took home a grand total of $793,008.

Despite the sky-high costs and unwavering dedication, Abbott said she will not give up on her dogs.

"There are no days off, no time off. It's a year-round thing," she said. "I love the wilderness and the dogs are my babies."

Added Eischens, "People watch out for each other out there. We work together as a team. It's camaraderie."

Copyright © 2017, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

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