In 1967 Sports Illustrated sent a reporter to cover, at the time, the biggest dog race in the world—the Fur Rondy World Championship. But through the reporter’s tenacious and adventuring spirit she ended up running the race and reporting. She completed the race and was also the first woman ever to compete in the Rondy. That reporter, Virginia Kraft-Payson, has come back as the Honorary Race Marshall for the next two years. Her entire story of the preparation and race can be read online at Type “Belle of the Mushers” in the search box. Here are some excerpts:Once upon a time in a little town called New York City…All of this had begun a month before. The sports editor of the Anchorage Daily New, Barney DuBois, urged SPORTS ILLUSTRATED to cover the 1966 world championship. “Sled-dog racing,” he wired, “is one of the most tenacious, grueling sports in the world. Mushers must drive sleds for long distances through well below-freezing temperatures.”I was interested and wired him back, asking if it would be possible to enter since that would certainly give me the clearest insight into the sport. I had found no reference to women competing in the championship and was not certain they were eligible.DuBois’ answer arrived the next day: “Women don’t sled-dog-race with men for much the same reason they don’t play football with them—too rough.” But he was enthusiastic, anyway, about the idea of my entering and he soon managed to arrange for a team of dogs from Earl Norris, a top trainer. Norris agreed to train me, feed the dogs and provide handlers—in short, to do everything except pay the $50 entry fee.Norris wanted me to leave for Anchorage immediately but I could not. Busy in New York on other assignments, I undertook to prepare myself physically…On training with Earl Norris…suddenly, I was buried in a sea of powdery snow. It was over my head and under my jacket, in my eyes, my nose and my mouth. I was moving face down through a snowdrift that rolled over me like surf. I had no idea how it had happened. One moment I was thinking how simple it was; in the next I was helpless. I realized that my arms were rigid and that I was still gripping the handle of the sled.Finally, the sled stopped. Still holding the handle, I got to my knees and poked my head up through the soft snow. The sled was caught on one side of a tree, the dogs were pulling hysterically against their traces on the other. It was a stalemate. Earl walked back along the trail. He backed up the dogs and held them while I unhooked the sled from the tree, righted it and anchored my foot on the brake.“You had your weight on the wrong runner,” Earl said matter-of-factly. “You have to let up a little on one foot when you hit those curves, shift your weight so you balance the sled, keep it level. Like in skiing. It’s real simple once you get the hang of it.”There were times in the days that followed that I did not think I would ever get the hang of it. One thing it was not was simple. In those first agonizing days I was thrown on my head, on my elbows, on my shoulders, on my hips. There was not a part of my body that was not welted black, blue and purple. I was dragged on my stomach, on my sides and on my knees, for what must eventually have totaled several miles over snow, ice, the roller-coaster ruts of snowmobile tracks, through thickets and brush piles. I was flung against fences, full force into trees, flamboyantly into snowdrifts. But I never once let go of the sled. “She really holds on,” Earl said, and I could tell he was pleased. In three days it was the most encouragement he had given me. From the beginning Earl had been willing to hold up his end of our bargain, but clearly he was skeptical about my ability to hold up mine. He had little patience with ineptitude…Qualified to race?…Things got worse the next morning. A newspaper friend called early. “You got problems,” he said. “The big contender got in last night and the first thing he wanted to know was what right you had to be in the race.”“But I thought we had cleared all that,” I said. “As long as my dogs had raced in the preliminaries, I thought my entry had been approved.”“That’s right, that’s right,” he said. “You’re legal all the way, but this guy’s got a real thing. He’d be happiest if there was no one else in the race. Right now all he can see is that he’ll wind up drawing a starting position behind you and that you’ll foul him up when he tries to pass. Anyone else in the race could do it just as well, but he’s decided you’re it.” “A real sporting attitude,” I mused.“Sporting, shmorting. There’s big money in this race. We had all we could do last night to keep him from going straight from the airport to the race committee”…Pre race jitters…Most mushers, I learned later, are nervous to some degree before the start of a big race, but I am sure that there was not one musher on that first day as nervous as I. To begin with, my fellow contestants were all experienced. Sixteen of the other 21 entries had competed in previous world championships; two were three-time winners and two others had won the championship twice. The remaining five mushers had all raced in lesser but nonetheless demanding contests. Many had won qualification races at home and in neighboring villages for the privilege of representing their communities in Anchorage . All had worked intensively with their teams for months and, in some cases, years prior to the race. They knew the mood, mannerism and idiosyncrasy of every one of their dogs. Finally, I was the only woman.Considering the long list of discrepancies between myself and the other mushers, the sex factor was not a relatively serious handicap. Far worse was my total inexperience. The dogs in my team had been leased from a kennel, and the only thing I knew about them for sure was that for most of our brief acquaintance I had been on the losing end of a deliberate, diabolical and frequently disastrous contest of wills, which I had no reason to think would not continue into the race…More pre race jitters…I hardly slept the night before the race, and the next morning I could not seem to get organized. I did everything in slow motion. My leg, which I had injured in a final training run the day before, was painfully stiff… In the lobby of the Captain Cook Hotel the bellhops and the young assistant manager were waiting to see me off. They all inquired about my leg. “We’ll be rooting for you,” one of them said. “We’ve pooled our money and we’re betting on you to finish.” And then suddenly it was quarter after one and I was on the starting line, looking down that awesome avenue. An official said: “You understand the rules. If you have difficulty controlling your dogs, I can help you for the first 100 feet. After that, no matter what happens, you must handle the dogs and sled yourself. I can give you no assistance. Now get ready. And good luck.”…Day 1My time for the first day was 2 hours, 23 minutes, 23 seconds. The winning time, made by 22-year-old Joee Redington Jr. of Flathorn Lake, Alaska, who was racing for the U.S. Army, was 1:37:33, with three other teams less than one minute behind him. Earl had run the first leg in 1:41:44, putting him near the front of the field. My time was slowest for the day, but I was not, it turned out, in last place. One man had been disqualified when his dogs bolted into the crowd only two blocks beyond the starting line, and two more teams had dropped out later on… L


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