When conditions on the Iditarod Trail required ninja-like reflexes out of Katherine Keith, tossing and turning her around like a rag doll, the rookie realized that having some athleticism may have kept her from joining the laundry list of mushers whose race is over.
"I kept on my toes and danced on the sled a lot," she said about Tuesday's harrowing run from Rohn to Nikolai. "It was an experience. I probably won't forget that one."
After three days of racing, Keith, 35, is serving her mandatory 24-hour rest in Takotna and holding steady as the top rookie in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The Kotzebue musher has been the recipient of good luck, but the X-factor of her early success can be attributed to her athletic prowess and determination
"I'm just happy to have made it through this far," she said.
When the Minnesota native is not driving dogs at her home in Kotzebue, where she lives with 2011 Iditarod champion John Baker, she's training for Ironman triathlons.
Kotzebue is hardly an ideal place for a triathlete, a sport that involves swimming, biking and running. The village of roughly 3,300 has few paved roads and no swimming pools. To make matters more challenging, it's located just above the Arctic Circle, which means winter dominates.
"It's hard to be an elite athlete in Kotzebue," Keith said. "You gotta be really creative. For example, I swim in the ocean during the summer."
For most coastal residents of the United States, that wouldn't seem out of the ordinary. But Keith swims in the Chukchi Sea, a body of salt water positioned between the Arctic and Pacific oceans. The water temperature in the summer is downright frigid, she said.
"It's amazing how hard it is to get motivated myself when it's that cold," she said. "But once you get going, it's nice to get into the water. Sometimes it gets warm enough that I can swim with a wet suit and a neoprene hat."
The hat is neon pink-- and she doesn't wear it to make a fashion statement. It's for protection.
"I worry sometimes (the locals) think I'm just another seal out there," she laughed. "They probably wonder what the heck I'm doing."
On Tuesday in Nikolai, while mushers swapped war stories of broken bones and bruised body parts, Keith looked unscathed and sounded upbeat.
"Being a rookie, the one thing I worried about was getting to this point and not falling apart," she said while preparing dinner for her dogs, a concoction of sheefish, meat, and dry dog food.
Keith used words like "exciting" and "fun" to describe her ride through the Dalzell Gorge and the Farewell Burn. Others who traveled the same trail used words like "nightmare" and "dangerous." Iditarod veterans Jason Mackey and Rick Casillo each said they thought they were "going to die."
"I actually enjoyed it," Keith said. "It was really intense."
At least she was outdoors. When the Chukchi Sea is frozen and Kotzebue roads are too deep with snow or too slick to bike or run, Keith trains inside.
Instead of swimming, she uses a Vasa Trainer, a workout machine that mimics swimming minus the water. Keith said it's like a rowing machine, but more fun. After using it for five months, she tested its results in a December Ironman race in Cozumel, Mexico, and placed 53rd out of 93 competitors in her age group. She finished with 2.4-mile swim in a personal-best time of 51 minutes, 30 seconds.
"It was good affirmation that you can train in odd situations," she said.
She does most of her cycling with a CompuTrainer, which converts a road bike into a stationary bike and allows riders to experience simulated bike routes from all over the world.
Keith is signed up for Ironman triathlons this summer in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and Lake Tahoe, Calif. Her goal is to qualify for the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.
On Tuesday, Keith's athleticism helped keep her on the sled, but it didn't keep the sled from going off the trail. About five miles outside of Rohn, she busted her sled beyond repair after it collided with a tree truck, which bashed the inside of her right runner and broke the bottom of the sled.
"I had to really nurse it coming in here so it wouldn't fall apart," she said.
According to a blog post by Jennifer Reiter, the Iditarod Teacher on the Trail, Keith told her story to Martin Buser in Nikolai. The four-time Iditarod champion just happened to have an extra sled sent from McGrath to Nikolai, and lucky for Keith, Buser decided he didn't need it, and so he lent it to her.
A gesture like is completely legal, according to Iditarod rules. It just means Buser's sled counts as one of the three sleds Keith is allowed use throughout the 1,000-mile race.
With a little more luck like that, and more ninja-like reflexes, Keith could become the first woman to win rookie of the year since Norwegian Sigrid Ekran in 2007.
"It's a race to Nome, so I don't really care too much (about rookie of the year) right now," Keith said. "But we'll see how the race goes, because a lot of the rookies out there are really experienced. I expect they're going to have better teams at the end."
"I'm just happy to have made it through this far."
Kevin Klott reported from Anchorage and Casey Grove from Nikolai.
By KEVIN KLOTT and CASEY GROVE
Anchorage Daily News / adn.com