The Mental Game is Tricky

By Wendy WillisJuly 25, 2016

The Mental Game is Tricky
I DON’T KNOW exactly what I was expecting when I visited Debbie Clarke Moderow at her home near Denali National Park. Maybe a disciplined, business-like arrangement between the humans — Debbie and her husband, Mark — and their long-distance sled dogs.

The Moderows keep 28 huskies in the yard they call Salty Dog Kennel, but the boundaries between house and yard, human and animal, pampered pet and working dog are porous and ever-shifting. And I have never seen or heard anything like the eruption in the yard when the harnesses come out of the barn. Each and every dog jumps on the top of its house, barking, yipping, singing, howling, and the noise only escalates as they’re selected to get in line in front of the sled. Only when the musher says “hike” and the chosen pull out of sight, do those left behind audibly sigh and dejectedly lie down in their houses.

It was not always like this. What began 26 years ago, with the adoption of a single retired sled dog to distract Debbie from the pain and confusion of two late-term miscarriages, eventually culminated in the Iditarod — not one but two attempts to complete the 1,000-mile race across Alaska. Her recently published memoir, Fast Into the Night, takes the reader from her first try in 2003, which ended in a scratch less than 200 miles from the finish line, to a triumphant finish two years later.

Over email, Debbie and I talked about dogs, mushers, global warming, and the challenges of completing a memoir.


WENDY WILLIS: My romanticized idea of Iditarod features a solitary individual battling the elements on the last wild frontier. So one of the things in your book that surprised me most was the sense of interdependency between the mushers and their dogs, for sure — but also between the humans involved in the race. Would you tell me a little more about those relationships and that community?

DEBBIE CLARKE MODEROW: For me the draw of Iditarod had everything to do with the dogs. They were my inspiration for entering the race. That said, every musher owes gratitude to countless volunteers. They organize supplies along the thousand-mile route. They welcome weary mushers and dogs into each checkpoint, and clean up after they move on. They’re willing to roll up their sleeves and do whatever needs to be done at all times of day and night. Some of them are highly trained, like the several dozen bush pilots who fly for the volunteer “Iditarod Air Force.” They transport supplies, and dogs, and other volunteers along the trail. They also fly volunteer veterinarians from checkpoint to checkpoint. Those dedicated vets partner with mushers to care for the dogs along the way.

And in addition to the volunteers on the trail, mushers need help year-round to make everything come together. For me that “help” has always come from family. Mark and I adopted our first sled dog when our kids were five and six. By the time I decided to try Iditarod, Andy and Hannah were in college, but even so, they coached me from afar and joined in the training whenever they were home. Mark and I worked together on everything from training to nutrition, sled maintenance and repair, and human and canine food preparation. On top of that, we had a professional handler, someone who worked alongside us with the dogs.

I’ve always been an independent sort, but one of the most valuable lessons I learned was the importance of “sharing the trail.” When a fellow musher — her name is Melanie Shirilla — suggested that we run together during my second race, I was reluctant. I feared that running with someone else might interfere with my focus, but Mel knew what she was talking about.

How do you mean?

Well, one example: Mel suggested we take turns going ahead on difficult sections of the trail. Like at one point, when we tried to travel over a high mountain pass in hurricane-force winds, her younger team hesitated. Mine went ahead, leading hers successfully to the lee of the ridge. Later when we came to an open creek, she helped me pull my reluctant dogs through the water. We camped together several times — shared stale food and hilarious stories and humored one another through a miserable rainsquall. Those miles with Melanie taught me pairing with another does far more than just double the numbers.

A point in the book that made me laugh out loud was the lead-up to the Happy River Steps in your second Iditarod run. You wiped out on a relatively simple turn because you were thinking about the cliffs up ahead. Can you tell me more about the mental aspects of running Iditarod? 

The mental game is tricky. My internal emotional swing between daring and doubt colored every step of both races, from signing up in the first place, to wondering, in the middle of the race, if we would reach the finish — and those emotional swings were further magnified by sleep deprivation. That’s how it was with the Happy River Steps. After the hype of starting the race, taking a two hour rest during that first night on the trail — all while anticipating the technical demands of crossing the mountain range — I was a mess of nerves. Yet when I had no choice but to descend those cliffs, I handled them well. That tendency is true for me in all aspects of life. I can become debilitated by anticipation, but when the time comes to deal with a challenge, I find my way in.

You mentioned in the acknowledgments that there is an uncanny resemblance between running Iditarod and writing a memoir. So how did that tension between daring and doubt play out in writing the book? 

Even before reaching the finish line, I knew I would write a book. I wanted to honor my dogs — and make sense of the events that led to my decision to enter the race. But five years into the writing, I hit a snag. In talking to editors and agents, I grew susceptible to their criticism and doubted my own vision of the book. Then I considered what I had learned during my second Iditarod — how critical it was to shrug off my doubts and believe in my own marathon routine.

At that point, I knew that I needed to become a better writer, and eventually, I returned to school to get an MFA. My years in the program (the Rainier Writing Workshop), just like the preparation for my second Iditarod, made all the difference.

Do you have any plans to run Iditarod again?

No, I won’t run it again. Of course, on the first Saturday of March I’m always envious of those heading out on the trail. But the race is all-consuming — of time, money, physical and emotional energy. There’s a big world out there, and lots of different trails to explore with our dogs.

Any other adventures in the works?

Well, we have 28 huskies in the backyard. I’m sure I’ll enter several 200-mile races with them next winter.

And next year Mark and I are scheming to take the dogs on a camping trip in the Arctic. To set up a canvas tent with a woodstove in one of the most pristine places on Earth — traveling with two teams of huskies that we’ve raised since birth — there’s just nothing like launching onto an unknown trail with 12 of your best dog friends.

That’s one of the things that I found fascinating — the intensity of the bond between you and your dogs. Is that ability to communicate with them (and they with you) innate? And what means do the dogs use to reach you — tails, ears, barks, what?

Dogs are always “talking.” Many interactions are aural: howls, barks, yips, yowls, and growls. Other expressions are physical. How a husky holds his or her tail — up, down, wagging, and everything in between — can tell you so much. Ears, hackles, and body positions relay a host of canine preferences, stances, and opinions.

To understand the dynamic of a dog team requires an intimate familiarity with each individual on the line. When Gouda’s ears droop, for example, I know he’s tired and needs a break. Stoney hangs his head when he’s hungry. When Sharp Cheddar’s ears grow tall, there’s almost always an animal up ahead, but when Brie’s ears go up I know she’s disgruntled with a teammate.

To connect with your sled dog, whether she’s lying on the hearth or pulling in harness, is essential for a musher. But that interaction is something I’ve always sought: back when I was a little girl I was inseparable from my Labrador, Pokey. She and I traipsed around the woods behind our house; she slept next to my bed at night, sat at my feet during every home-cooked meal, and jumped in the car when my mom drove me to school. In springtime, my Dad would come home from work and pitch softballs to me in the front yard. I hit them hard, and Pokey retrieved every one.

Now, as I’m writing this, my lead dog, Sharp Cheddar, is sleeping at my side. She’s with me all the time — just like Pokey was. I’m pretty sure I’ve spent more hours in my life with dogs than with humans.

Your experience with Iditarod gave you a close-up view of some of the most climate-sensitive wilderness in the world. Are you seeing the effects of climate change along the Iditarod route and in Alaska in general?

All around us, yes. When our family first started mushing, we lived for the local race series on the weekends when children could harness up two or three mutts and take off down Anchorage’s inner-city dogsledding trails.

Today, my kids are in their 30s. While they no longer enter races, several of their childhood mushing friends competed in this year’s Iditarod. But, due to lack of snow in December and January, there were no junior races in Anchorage. Four out of the last five racing seasons have been incomplete for the junior mushers — this lapse will probably spell the end of local kennels in Alaska’s biggest city. Why would you keep a pack of sled dogs in the backyard when you can’t count on snow?

This is just one small example of what’s obvious to Alaskans: our climate is warming, and the effect along the Iditarod Trail is dramatic. For many years now, organizers have been forced to truck snow into Anchorage for the ceremonial start. The 2015 Iditarod was rerouted to the north, due to poor trail conditions. Traveling the trail takes mushers into communities whose people are tied closely to the landscape. Melting permafrost, receding sea ice, changes in migratory bird patterns, and pressures on other species are common topics of conversation. The prevalence of wildfire in the boreal forest of Alaska has increased dramatically in recent years; mushers who live in rural areas have been hit particularly hard. Last summer alone, five families we know lost their homes to fires.

That’s sobering news as we look back at the warmest winter on record. Do you have any plans to write about any of this?

I do. I’m pleased to be taking part in an Alaskan based arts, humanities, and science consortium called “Microbial Worlds: In Time of Change” (a collaboration between the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Arctic Biology and Bonanza Creek Long Term Ecological Project). Monthly, our group of artists and writers meets with scientists to better comprehend changes at the microbial level. This summer we’re traveling to a research station in the Alaskan Arctic. I’m hoping the experience will inform my understanding of the changes that threaten life as we have come to know it in the north. And as an Alaskan writer, I feel both an urgency and a responsibility to write about that, yes.


Wendy Willis is poet and essayist and is author of Blood Sisters of the Republic.

LARB Contributor

Wendy Willis's most recent book is These are Strange Times, My Dear. She is the executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, a global network of organizations and leading scholars working in the field of deliberation and public engagement.


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