While some women take a relaxing vacation to somewhere warm and tropical when they turn 50, Kim Franklin of Hertfordshire, United Kingdom, will celebrate the opposite way. She'll spend it mushing dogs to Nome in the 44th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which is likely to see subzero temperatures and howling winds blowing in from the Bering Sea.
"It's my gift to myself, and a bit of a midlife (crisis) I suppose, the equivalent to a guy buying a Ferrari and driving it around with a big-boobed blonde," she says.
As to where the idea came from to celebrate a half-century of life by standing on the runners of a sled for more than a week, enduring extremes of cold and sleeplessness, all the while staring at the backside of 16 dogs, Franklin says it started in a pub when she was 22.
"I wanted a dog and got an Alaskan malamute," she says.
The owner of a rare breed in the U.K. at the time, she began learning about malamute care and history, which eventually led her to Alaska and the Iditarod. Eventually, she got involved in small, mostly dryland, sled dog racing back in England.
Jump ahead to 2002. Franklin's husband, Ian Payne, wanted a vacation and decided on trying to see all 50 states in the U.S.
"I said that's fine, but if we're going, I want to see the Iditarod Trail. So we did, and I loved it," she says.
Franklin and her husband took one of the full tours, being right along the starting chute as the race began, then flying the trail, making stops at the checkpoints along the way, and even meeting that year's champion face to face.
Of all those experiences, though, she says one of the most memorable was bumping into Tim Osmar of Ninilchik, then a 17-time Iditarod veteran, at the Rainy Pass checkpoint high in the Alaska Range.
"He said, 'How'd you get here?' and I said, 'By airplane. How'd you get here?' And he said, 'By dog team,'" Franklin recounts. They let their respective responses sink in, then the two had a good laugh. Despite being in the middle of a race in which Osmar would finish 15th, the veteran racer was friendly and forthcoming about everything mushers do.
'Most amazing thing'
Memories of that conversation and the whole trip resonated within Franklin for years, so in 2006, as she prepared to turn 40, her husband asked what she wanted. Another trip to Alaska, came the answer, this time as an Iditarider during the race's ceremonial start in Anchorage.
With who? Tim Osmar, of course.
"It was the most amazing thing and by the end of those 11 miles, I was hooked. I knew I'd come back and run dogs," she says.
After that trip, she began contacting people in the know about who she could apprentice with to learn how to train and race dogs. Who might lease her a team?
At the time, many mushers were looking for handlers, but few people were set up to take on working clients. One familiar name did come up though: Osmar, this time Dean, Tim's father and the 1984 Iditarod champion. The elder Osmar was a man known for putting new mushers though a trial by fire to get them ready for the worst any race could throw at them.
"At the end of 2006 I came for two months, and Dean nearly killed me," Franklin says, referring to the thigh-burning ups and harrowing downs while training in the Caribou Hills, as well as the icy and lightning-fast flat trails at lower elevations closer to Osmar's kennel in Kasilof.
The experience toughened Franklin, who then wanted to see how much she'd learned. So she entered the 2007 Knik 200 Joe Redington Sr. Memorial Sled Dog Race, finishing 14th out of 30 starters.
"I wanted to see if that would be enough to get it out of my system, but I did it, loved it, and wanted more," she says.
She went back to the U.K. for summer but returned in December 2007 to run the Klondike 300, finishing 12th among 17 starters, meeting the prerequisite of 500 race miles to be qualified to enter the Iditarod.
In 2008 she returned and, with a belly full of butterflies and 16 dogs bursting at the seams, set off to Nome. The first 150 or so miles went well, but then disaster struck. Not far out of Rainy Pass, near the infamous Dalzell Gorge, Franklin's team hit a creek with the ice bridge broken out and thickets of willow lining both sides of the bank.
In the darkness, she did her best to get her still-raring-to-go team sorted and straightened out, but when she shined the narrow beam of her headlamp to the front of the line, her leaders -- Frosty and Arctic -- were nowhere in sight.
"My swing dog had chewed the line and set them free. I didn't know where they were and just panicked," she says.
Loose dogs are always a concern, but these two were also tethered together by their neckline. Franklin feared they could get tangled, injured or worse. She mushed the roughly 12-15 miles remaining to the next checkpoint of Rohn, worrying the whole way, and despairing further when she arrived to find her leaders weren't there.
"Since then, I realized I made a rookie mistake of going ahead. I should have camped there. At Rohn I started talking to people behind me as they came in and they said the dogs went back to where I was. But when I wasn't there, they went back to the last place they got fed: Rainy Pass," she says.
Rookie mistakes are one thing, but Franklin's fiasco was also peppered with a bit of bad luck. When the dogs returned to Rainy Pass, somehow -- despite having no paperwork -- they were loaded onto a plane of dropped dogs being flown back to Anchorage.
Iditarod rules say that mushers must arrive at each checkpoint with all the dogs they left the previous checkpoint with. Because Franklin couldn't do that, she was withdrawn from the race.
"I felt gutted," she says.
Franklin, though, believes we all learn from our mistakes and grow from our misfortunes, so she wanted another crack at the Iditarod. It was a chance to redeem herself and see her dream through to the Burled Arch over Front Street in Nome.
'Not as shell-shocked'
She came back to Alaska to run Dean Osmar's dogs again in the winter of 2014-15, and ran the Gin Gin 200, Northern Lights 300 and the grueling Yukon Quest 300. Then this season, she ran them in the Cooper Basin 300 in January and had signed up for the Knik 200 and the Tustumena 200, both canceled due to lack of snow.
Completing so many races has boosted Franklin's skills and the likelihood she'll finish this time, Dean Osmar said.
"She's not as shell-shocked. She's more confident and in a better mental place to finish. I was at all her checkpoints during the Copper Basin, and she had her routine down. She'd come in, snack, get her cooker going, feed and rub some sore feet. She looked really natural with it all," he says.
Dean Osmar says he also tried to vary Franklin's training more this season, to keep her from getting too comfortable on the runners or complacent with her skills.
"I had her go in different directions on trails she knew, and go out a lot more on her own. She got really good with the dogs, especially at knowing their gaits and recognizing when one is off gait. A lot of people will do this for three or four years and still struggle to notice those subtle signs," he says.
Franklin agrees the additional training and racing time has provided insight she didn't have going into her first Iditarod.
"I got outside my comfort zone and learned a lot from those races. Last time, I don't think I really knew what I was getting into, and now I do," she says. "I learned everyone makes mistakes, crashes and has things go wrong out there. It wasn't just happening to me, and everyone else was gliding around magically."
Keeping this in mind, Franklin believes she has what it takes to make it this time.
"I'm very determined and won't scratch unless something in my body is broken," she says. "If things start going bad, I'll rest more, or do whatever I need to. I'm not trying to win, just finish."
Joseph Robertia is a freelance writer living in Kasilof with his wife, Colleen, and daughter, Lynx, where they operate Rogues Gallery Kennel and have run several mid-distance mushing races, including Colleen running the Iditarod and Yukon Quest.