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Utah woman is dogged competitor

She has become hooked on the sport of mushing and is racing in grueling Iditarod

Sue Morgan is following her Iditarod dream north to Alaska.

On Friday in Anchorage, Morgan will become the first woman from Utah to compete in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, now in its 34th year. She'll join more than 100 teams traveling more than 1,100 miles to Nome.

Before she left town with her partner, John Martin, Morgan attended to last-minute details: having her sled repaired, packing a trailer with gear for her 16-dog team and grading papers.

Morgan, 56, who lives in Richmond and is on a six-month leave of absence from her job as a geology lecturer at Utah State University, has plenty of expenses these days.

"Another tank of gas," Martin quipped.

Morgan heard that the financial burden will tally $30,000. "I believe it . . . every penny," she said.

Running the Iditarod was not on her mind when in the late 1990s she first hooked up her malamute to a cart in the hope of training him to pull her on skis ("skijoring"). At the time Morgan was looking for a "grand adventure." A failed climbing trip in Wyoming's Wind River Mountains changed her focus to something more down to earth.

She was hooked on mushing after completing her first 50-mile race in Montana.

"Running dogs is incredibly romantic," she said. "When you're out there it's just you and the dogs and everything is working and it's magic. It's so addicting, but it's so demanding."

Author Gary Paulsen in his 1994 book "Winterdance" described his passion for mushing and Iditarod quest as a "fine madness."

Amy Eskelsen, a recreational musher and Morgan's friend, agrees. "Running dogs is the hardest thing I've ever done, but it's the greatest thing I've ever done."

Morgan begins and ends her days in the dark. It takes several hours to feed, water, run and clean up after the 24 dogs she brought to Seeley Lake, Mont. (northeast of Missoula), in January. She's been living at the home of Iditarod veteran Cindy Gallea.

Morgan's garage workspace is crammed with a small table, sink, 5-gallon buckets of thawing elk meat and congealed fat, a jumble of dog booties and a pallet of dry dog kibble. Morgan, her face etched with recent scratches, picks up two 5-gallon buckets and heads outside into the blue shadows. The temperature is up slightly from a nighttime low of minus 15.

The buckets contain stacks of bowls filled with kibble. At her approach, all 65 dogs at Gallea's Snowcrest Kennels burst into a noisy frenzy. Dogs race around on their chains or jump up and down to follow Morgan's progress as she maneuvers the maze of paths worn between the snowbanks, stopping every now and then to offer kind words and head pats. Thin sunlight kisses the tops of the doghouses as she makes a second round with steaming buckets of water mixed with meat juices.

Women have a strong presence in the male-dominated world of sled dog racing, including four-time Iditarod winner Susan Butcher and Dee Dee Jonrowe, who's completed 22 Iditarods. Two women were among last year's top 10 finishers.

Gallea, competing in her sixth Iditarod this year, believes that women's "natural ability to endure" makes them "more determined mushers."

Morgan thinks so, too. "It comes down to mental strength. You have to have a good focus." Morgan named her Spirit Moon Kennel after the banners carried into battle by Genghis Khan.

Other women mushers note the strong connection women have with their teams.

Kathy Carmichael, who co-owns Carmacks Siberians in Paradise, Utah, with her husband, Michael, says, "I find it interesting that women are able to get more out of their animals than men. They have a better kinship with them."

Carmichael's husband teaches their all-Siberian husky team stamina and speed while her role is to "teach them manners," like how to pull properly and precision turning.

In a race like the Iditarod, precision is imperative when temperatures fall far below zero, the wind rages and mushers must maneuver through hazards seen and unseen. The route passes over two mountain ranges, through dense forests and desolate tundra, and crosses several major rivers including the Yukon before following the coastline across frozen Norton Sound to Nome.

The original Iditarod Trail, a National Historic Trail, was a mail and supply route used by settlers and gold miners in the early 1900s and was used to deliver a lifesaving supply of diphtheria serum to Nome residents in 1925.

Morgan has learned practical tips from the pros, like staying at the tiny native village checkpoints rather than camping out, packing a few more pounds of dog food per day, and traveling with other teams when you're having a tough time. Mushers are required to pack an arctic parka, heavy sleeping bag, ax, snowshoes, food for both musher and dogs and dog booties.

In January she prepared nearly a ton of food and supplies that will be distributed to trail checkpoints. Most of that total is dog food. Every musher's training routine is unique, and Morgan's dogs' daily diet will consist primarily of dry kibble and lamb meat along with snacks like hot dogs.

"Some people laughed when I said I'd be bringing them, but I figured I could eat them, too," she says. She'll dine on vacuum-packed lasagna, spaghetti, pizza and ravioli with alfredo sauce. And "chocolate is very important," she said.

Her meals will be last on a list of tasks she'll perform at each checkpoint. After the dogs' vet checks, she'll examine and apply cream to their paws, then heat water in a rudimentary cooker to thaw the dogs' food. She'll feed, water and bed them down, and only then will she heat water for her meal and try to catch six hours of sleep. There are several mandatory layovers; the longest is 24 hours.

Morgan had hoped to complete 2,000 prerace miles but fell short by 100. To qualify for the race, mushers need only one 300-mile and one 200-mile race. Morgan started training in 2004 but couldn't run in Cache Valley's midsummer heat.

The area is home to a number of sled dog teams and is the site of the second annual Cache Valley K9 Challenge, held at Hardware Ranch.

Morgan will start the Iditarod with the required 16 dogs, but only five have to finish. Eight are considered lead dogs. "You want as many leaders as possible," Morgan explains. "They have the enthusiasm as well as the endurance. You cultivate this by treating them well so they trust that you won't run them into the ground.

"Some of you losers get to go today," Morgan yells affectionately above the din as she chooses eight dogs for a short training run.

On arrival at the trailhead, Morgan places her 25-pound sled in front of the truck. Each dog is clipped onto a drop chain that extends along the sides of the vehicle. At first the line of dogs waits quietly, nipping bites of snow as Morgan fits each one with a harness and leads them to the gangline of the sled. As each dog is placed in line, all of them become restless and the noise level increases.

Within minutes they're jumping, straining and whining to go. Morgan has only moments to adjust her parka hood, put both feet on the sled runners, pull out the snow hook and call, "Let's go!" before the sled leaps forward.

"Sled dogs want to do nothing but run," says Carmichael. Racing dogs are primarily Alaskan huskies, not an American Kennel Club registered breed; Siberian huskies have thicker coats and are better suited to races with long distances between checkpoints, like the Yukon Quest. Most Iditarod checkpoints are 25-55 miles apart.

Morgan says her dogs run at about 10 mph, while veterans' dogs travel at 12 mph. She plans to be on the trail for 12 days.

But a good team is not just about speed. ""When you run a sled dog team, you're a leader," Morgan explains. "Your goal is to draw the best out of your animals. They can't tell you how they feel. You need to pay attention to their needs."

Morgan's biggest concern is reaching the checkpoint at Nikolai (Mile 352), which comes after an arduous crossing of the Alaska Range and is considered a major milestone both physically and emotionally. Martin, who'll care for dogs dropped from the race before he meets Morgan at the finish line, describes her outlook this way: "This summer it was Nome or bust. We were pretty excited. Then reality set in, and with all the hard work, we thought, 'First place is getting out of the parking lot.' Then it was getting to the hotel. Now it's getting to the starting line."

Both Eskelsen and Carmichael marvel at what Morgan has been able to accomplish, essentially by herself, without high-paying sponsors and paid teams of handlers. "I've always read adventure stories and wondered what it took," muses Morgan. "Now I know."