Here’s how 8 Iditarod mushers stay fit for long-distance sled dog racing

Iditarod 2019, Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, ceremonial start

When Aliy Zirkle isn’t competing in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, she works out for about 90 minutes every other day.

“Basically, I try to get my heart rate up really high and then come back down,” said 49-year-old Zirkle, a three-time Iditarod runner-up. “I sweat like a demon for an hour and a half.”

Mushers’ level of physical fitness can matter out on the Iditarod Trail and can give teams an edge, Zirkle said.

Mushing often means standing on two sled runners for long stretches of time. Many mushers also use a ski pole and kick their foot against the snow to help propel the team forward. Some run up hills alongside their dogs. Then there are the routine dog chores: carrying buckets of water, dishing out food, fastening booties.

“I think people who are fit — like Aliy, she’s ripped and she’s strong — people like her probably feel better throughout the race and feel better after the race than someone who isn’t in shape,” said Iditarod musher Anna Berington of Knik.

We recently asked several Iditarod mushers, including Zirkle and Berington, what they do to get physically prepared for the Iditarod.

For many, it’s simply the work involved in training their dogs and caring for them. For some, it’s more.

Here’s what 8 of this year’s Iditarod mushers had to say.

Aliy Zirkle:

Iditarod 2019, Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, ceremonial start

Zirkle said she generally trains her dogs on a day-on, day-off schedule. On the dogs’ day off, Zirkle is in the workout room that her husband and fellow musher, Allen Moore, built on the back of their garage. There’s a treadmill and an elliptical trainer. They’ve put pictures of dogs on the wall because “they’re the inspiration,” she said.

“I feel like you’re letting your team down if you’re not fit,” she said. “The bigger you are, the more they’re carrying, so you better be able to help them.”

Zirkle said she’ll go on the treadmill and she does interval training. Sometimes, she’ll put an exercise program on the TV. Moore prioritizes exercising too.

“My husband Allen and myself, we are not the youngest mushers in the world anymore. And we’re competing against, you know, the likes of Wade Marrs and Joar (Leifseth Ulsom) and the Redingtons and everything and they’re in their mid-30s — maybe,” she said. “So when a woman who is almost in her fifth decade and my husband who is in his sixth decade compete against folks like that, I think you have to look at your body as another tool.”

Zirkle said she also keeps her diet in mind. She doesn’t drink alcohol and tries to stay away from carbohydrates. She doesn’t focus on lifting weights, because she doesn’t need to, she said. Dog chores take care of that. (Remember that time she accidentally broke a woman’s arm in Nome during an arm-wrestling contest, just hours after finishing the 2015 Iditarod?)

Another of Zirkle’s workout focuses: Keeping her core strong. Dogs aren’t very tall, so you’re constantly leaning over, she said.

“The biggest thing is having a fit core where you can get down and up,” she said. “You feed them, down and up. You put booties on them, down and up. You’re always talking to them, down and up.”

This is Zirkle’s 19th Iditarod. Last year, she placed 15th.

Mitch Seavey:

Seavey, a three-time Iditarod champion, shed 12 pounds in the lead-up to this year’s race, dropping to 146 pounds on his 5-foot-6 frame, he said. Seavey currently holds the titles of both the oldest and fastest musher to win the Iditarod after his 2017 victory at age 57. He’s now 59.

“I resist the idea that 59 is old,” he said. “Fifty-nine is only old because people don’t take care of themselves.”

Seavey said he doesn’t have a workout aside from training his dogs. He said he also monitored his diet more this winter.

“I just care for my dogs and work on the back of my dog sled and I’m a beast," he said and laughed. “I’m 59 going on 42.”

In the summers, the Sterling musher also goes running.

This is Seavey’s 26th Iditarod. Last year, he placed third.

Brett Bruggeman:

Brett Bruggeman, dog mushing, iditarod, iditarod 2018, iditarod trail sled dog race, mushing

Bruggeman, a 48-year-old dentist from Montana, said he does three 300-mile sled dog races in the winter to prepare for the Iditarod.

To stay in shape during the summer, he trains horses, goes on long bike rides and runs. He usually works up to a 50-mile trail run that he and his friend try to do in one day.

“Any fitness you gain in the summer seems to spill over into winter working with the dogs,” he said.

Looking at recent Iditarod champions, he said, fitness must play a role in winning the race. He described four-time Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey as “an incredible athlete.”

“I’m close to 50 so I can’t quite keep up with those young bucks, but I’ll give them a run for their money,” he said.

Another important part of staying healthy on the trail: drinking water. Even if the temperatures fall far below zero, Bruggeman said, he’ll drink roughly 80 ounces of water on every run, “otherwise you’ll hallucinate.”

This is Bruggeman’s second Iditarod. Last year, he placed 39th.

Anna Berington:

2019 iditarod, Anna Berington, aerial, aerial photo, aerial photography, aerial photos, aerials, ceremonial start, iditarod, iditarod 2019

There’s not really time for anything except sled dogs in the winter, Berington said. Berington and her twin sister and kennel partner, Kristy, are currently competing in their eighth Iditarod together.

“It’s all about the dogs in the winter,” said Berington, 35.

If they find time, the Beringtons will squeeze in stretching and core workouts in the winter. During the summer, the twins do a lot of running. Anna ticked off their 2018 races. Together, they ran three half-marathons and a marathon. On top of that, Anna did a triathlon and another marathon, and Kristy ran an ultramarathon.

“You focus and train and work hard for this goal of Iditarod and then it ends, so then you want something else to focus on and train for,” Anna Berington said.

This is her eighth Iditarod. Last year, she placed 22nd.

Matthew Failor:

Willow Restart Iditarod

Failor usually does core exercises, stretches his lower back and cuts out caffeine in the lead-up to the Iditarod. If he has coffee every day before the race, he worries he’ll really need it on the trail. He doesn’t want that.

“If I want to have coffee on the Iditarod, I want to feel the effects of being awake,” said the 36-year-old musher who lives in Willow.

As far as exercise goes, the daily lifestyle of owning a sled dog kennel is a workout in itself, Failor said. Within the last year, however, he and his kennel crew did employ a new rule: If you say a curse word, you drop and do push-ups whether you’re in the dog yard or in the kitchen.

It’s more for fun than for fitness, he said. Push-ups are assigned depending on the severity of the word.

“The mother of all dirty words deserved 40, and then just a weak, four-letter word was, like, 10 push-ups,” Failor said.

This is Failor’s eighth Iditarod. Last year, he placed 13th.

Matt Hall:

Iditarod vet checks, veterinarian, Iditarod headquarters, Matt Hall

Every year, Hall said, he makes goals to run or do aerobics outside of sled-dog mushing, but he never quite accomplishes them.

“I’m kind of getting along playing the card of my age right now,” said the 27-year-old musher from Two Rivers.

Plus, the sled-dog lifestyle generally keeps him fit, he said. In the summertime, he does sled-dog tours on a glacier, often trudging through knee-deep snow for 10 tours a day. In the wintertime, he’s training.

“By the end of the day you lay down and your whole body’s got that slight tingling feeling as if you just came from the gym,” he said.

This is Hall’s second Iditarod. He placed 11th last year.

Anja Radano:

Iditarod 2019, Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, ceremonial start

Radano, 44, lives in Talkeetna near a lake. In the summers, she’ll take a group of four to eight of her sled dogs swimming. She’ll also take the dogs trail running, though usually just one at a time. Or, she’ll hook a small group of the dogs up to her scooter.

“It’s like a scooter you’d have as a kid, but with bigger wheels — almost like a bike — so you can go on a trail,” she said.

Radano works part-time as a veterinary technician. In the summers, she also works as a waitress at Denali Brewpub. She has 25 sled dogs, including puppies. Sled-dog training consumes her winters.

This is Radano’s second Iditarod. Last year, she placed 51st.

Joar Leifseth Ulsom:

Iditarod vet checks, veterinarian, Iditarod headquarters, Joar Leifseth Ulsom

Defending Iditarod champion Leifseth Ulsom uses a spin bike and lifts weights at his Willow home in addition to sled-dog training. Leifseth Ulsom, 32, said he’s not on a strict workout schedule, he just squeezes it in whenever he has time.

“That’s kind of the hard part about what we do — having time to do anything else,” he said.

Fitness is “very important” on the Iditarod Trail, he said.

“It’s really awesome to be in good shape whether it’s kicking or ski poling,” he said. “Also it just keeps you from cramping up in your muscles and having problems. I think the better shape you’re in, you’re going to do even better in the race and with sleep deprivation and all that.”

This is Leifseth Ulsom’s seventh Iditarod.

ADN’s Marc Lester contributed.

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.