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Triathletes, boxers and skiers: How different sports help these Iditarod mushers compete

Eddie Burke Jr. is interviewed at the Rainy Pass checkpoint on Monday. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

This article by Lex Treinen was originally published by Alaska Public Media. It was republished with permission through a partnership with KNOM.

It’s no secret that you have to be in decent physical shape to keep up on the Iditarod trail.

While the dog teams do a lot of the work, the mushers also often ski pole, kick their leg or even run alongside the sled to help propel the team forward. Then there are the long stretches of sleeplessness and all of the dog chores — feeding, massaging, laying out bedding, repeat.

Some mushers say the lessons they learned doing other sports have helped them harness the discipline needed to keep going, and to navigate the twists and turns of the trail.

Here are the sports five mushers have competed in, and how they say that’s helping them now:

Dan Kaduce, a national-level triathlete and former college skier

Dan Kaduce looks over his sled dog team at Rainy Pass. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

“I did pretty much every sport you could think of as a kid from baseball, basketball, football, all kinds of stuff and then moved into downhill skiing in college, was racing giant slalom and slalom and also did a bunch of triathlons and mountain bike racing. I was into the short course triathlons. My big accomplishment was I was invited to the Olympic Trials in 1992.  

I raced downhill skiing in Duluth, Minnesota. When we were seniors, we were national champions. I wasn’t the main point-getter for our team. 

Training a human is a lot like training a dog, so I just pushed everything I learned in triathlons into training them. Skiing doesn’t hurt either for balance on the sled.”

Eddie Burke Jr., an Alaska high school standout wrestler and football player

Eddie Burke Jr. and his dogs dash down the trail. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

“I wrestled from seventh grade all the way through my senior year of high school at Service High in Anchorage. I was on varsity all four years through high school. I was ranked top 3 in the state regularly and competed at state every year. I was a football player as well. I played football from fourth grade all the way through my senior year. I made all-conference running back my senior year. I started boxing in high school as well, and did well at that. But that’s a thing of the past — I’m too old for that now. 

I think the sports helped my mushing, especially wrestling and boxing. Those are two sports that take an incredible amount of discipline and mental toughness. Waking up at 5 a.m. and running four to five miles every morning, then going to school, then going to practice afterwards and then some days I’d even go workout after practice as well. I’d just eat, sleep, breathe that stuff and try to be the best I can. It hardens you, for sure.”

Hunter Keefe, endurance runner 

Hunter Keefe feeds his dogs at the Rainy Pass checkpoint. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

“I was a cross-country runner in high school in Iowa. I was on varsity my freshman year, but then I had an injury. That definitely helped ’cause I learned about distance running and training. I’ve been through a little bit of what these dogs go through but not on the scale they do.  

And then I played soccer, I think I was maybe on varsity my senior year.  I really liked it — you just ran for 90 minutes straight. I’m not in shape like I used to be, but it gives you that love of running and you understand how these guys have so much fun.”

Riley Dyche, football and track

Riley Dyche at the Rainy Pass checkpoint on Monday. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

“I played football my whole life and then ran track through junior high and high school. I ran the 800, the mile and two mile. I wasn’t real exceptional at any of them, but it kept me occupied at least. 

I think extracurricular sports in general give you a healthy work ethic and give you a good team mentality. Not to say you can’t do the Iditarod without it, but it definitely helps to develop a good team mentality.”

Kelly Maixner, amateur champion boxer and Ironman triathlete

Kelly Maixner pulls into Nikolai on Tuesday. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

“When I went to college they had these things — kinda like Thursday Night Fights in Anchorage — where people just show up and fight. My friends dared me to do it. I’d never boxed before, and then the referee offered to train me up for free. I did a state club boxing thing, and I won that. We were getting paid if you won, so it wasn’t really amateur. 

One of my friends said I couldn’t do an Ironman back in 2005 or 2006. So I did it that year and then a different friend wanted to do another one with me so we did one in Juneau this fall. He’s a way faster biker and swimmer than I am, and when I caught him on the run I walked the rest of the way with him. 

It all comes into play. Dog mushing made me way better at the second triathlon because it’s all mental. It’s the same as dog mushing — it’s just the mental fortitude to keep going and know it’s gonna be a long slog, and it’s gonna be painful. If you go into it with that attitude it makes it a lot easier.”

Image at top: Eddie Burke Jr. is interviewed at the Rainy Pass checkpoint on Monday. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

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