86th GM Presentation Buser

The 86th General Meeting Opening Remarks

Martin Buser

The following presentation was delivered at the 86th General Meeting Monday morning session, May 8, 2017. It has been edited for content and phrasing.

INTRODUCTION: Martin Buser is a four-time champion of the Iditarod race (1992, 1994, 1997, and 2002). He currently holds the record for the most consecutive Iditarod finishes at 31 races completed in a row, and he has earned 33 total finishes.

MR. BUSER:  Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. The dog we have in front of us is Rigid, our extremely experienced lead dog, followed by Mulan. And the other dog in the rear was a dog named Arc. Those three dogs, amongst 13 others, have just completed another Iditarod. Young and old, we have a team of dogs that go from 10-year-olds to two-year-olds, and this old driver head dog, who had run the race for the 34th time. Since he's stubborn or tough enough to hold on for 34 Iditarods, I now have the record of the most consecutive finishes of anybody who has ever attempted what we call the Last Great Race.

I'm going to take you on a bit of a visual journey from Anchorage—literally two and a half blocks from here is where we started just a few weeks ago—and all the way to Nome. These athletes love nothing more than running. That's what they are bred for. We call them designer dogs. Very much like the boilermaker, they were born to work. That's a different story.

I'm told you guys are a hard-working bunch of people, and after reading Paul's book, I was under a lot of pressure to give you a good presentation. So I’ve practiced those corny jokes for so long now, it should flow just fine.

The dogs are specially bred dogs. These are hard-working thoroughbred mongrels and high-strung athletes that can run typically two and a half to three and a half thousand miles every season before we embark—no pun intended—onto the Iditarod.

After 10 or 11 races to Nome, we typically find a retirement home for the dogs. In fact, I just sent a dog to southern California just a couple of weeks ago, who is going to check out the retirement homes. Right now we only have two or three geriatrics at the kennel, but we always, sometimes in venues like this, find their future retirement home.

It has been found that good exercise, good food, and good health contribute to longevity. Maybe we can all live up to that. In fact, my dogs will burn up to 11,000 calories in a 24-hour period. I think Chuck tried that at breakfast. But the point is that you run 150 to 160 miles every 24 hours. What these dogs can do is almost unfathomable. These guys are superior athletes. And we are talking about a 55-pound average dog. These dogs can run, rest, and run again to their heart's content. Our victories all have come with an equal balance of running and resting.

I should brag that these dogs have pulled me to the finish line in first place a couple of times. Actually, four times so far. And in 2002, I was the first person to ever break the mystical nine-day barrier when I finished in Nome in eight days, 22 hours, 46 minutes, and two seconds, but who is counting?

Some of you have probably heard of Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile. At the time, it was a huge deal. Everybody knew that sooner or later the mile could be broken under four minutes. And for us the race progressed upward. In 1973, when we had the first official Iditarod, the champion took 21 days to get across the finish line. The last place person was on the trail for over 30 days.

Of course, that wears on you, the elements, the duration, the time on trial, as we call it, takes its toll on drivers as well as on the dogs. Now it’s much, much faster because of better diets, better equipment, better care, better understanding, and, of course, superior dogs. These incredible dogs have evolved very much like your championship Pointer, the Retriever, or the guard dogs in some instances. Those dogs have been molded and geared towards their task. You could come to my kennel and steal a color television, and my dogs will wag their tail and look at you like, Can we help you? You could throw a dead duck in my kennel, and they would look at it like, “That’s pretty interesting.”  Now, when you bring out a harness, you could hear the dogs' commotion. They want to do nothing but run and to be taken care of. And their abilities to cover terrain are unequalled. 

For some of you—it's your first time in Alaska, and you will see some of that incredible terrain. We, of course, joke that Alaska starts five minutes outside of Anchorage in any direction. Some of you will fly—I tried to talk some people into going up to the glacier. On your next visit maybe you will run the Iditarod. It's about a two- or three-year warming-up procession. First, you have to qualify with 750 miles of races. Eventually you have to go through some seminars just to prove that you can hold onto the handlebar. 

So I talked about the terrain a little bit. People want to know what the trail is like. Now, I say if you can imagine it, you will probably see it. From the picture-perfect, tabletop, smooth, ski-like trail; to the open water, to the bare ground. 

For three years now, throughout the history of the Iditarod, they had to relocate the start to a different venue. In fact, we had the ceremonial start here, which is the official thank you to all the sponsors, and we are at the most population-dense area. We have a celebration here in town the first Saturday in March. Then we relocate the dogs. This year for the third time only, we drove all the way to Fairbanks, Alaska, and started what we call the global warming route or the Fairbanks route, simply because the rivers, the rivulets, and the water that was preventing us going up and over the Alaska Range were impossible to overcome.

To show you how unpredictable Alaska is, the temperature dropped to 45° below, which was kind of comfortable, because two years ago when we did the same route, the temperature plummeted to 65° below.  The dogs are incredibly well-suited to overcome these low temperatures; the drivers, sometimes, not so much.

I had another miserable race this year, but I guess after having won a few, every one that you don't win is a miserable race. And therein is the perseverance talk, to overcome and to pay great homage to keep on going. Victories are easy. Defeats are a lot harder to deal with. And most of us deal with a lot of defeat, with a lot of challenges. If we had good snow for 1,049 miles, we would be totally surprised. A hundred to 200 miles of no snow is typical. They still haven't been able to smooth out that trail yet, so I feel like an exploded boiler when I have to eventually stop the dogs and look for all the parts and pieces that are lying around between the Farewell Lakes and that little hump we called Egypt Mountain, simply because the terrain is so unforgiving. And our sleds are made to be on snow, not on rough terrain, such as bare ground or sometimes glare ice. So you have to prepare yourself for a little bit of everything imaginable. The dogs and the drivers have to have equipment they can succeed on. 

One of the more challenging events in that particular race—and you might see me running with a broken ankle and an un-mended, injured finger—was actually the impetus of me starting the book we call Dog Man. PTSD needs to be combated with either talking about it or writing about it, and some of those races are truly so challenging that I had to write the book. 

After a really challenging trip to Nome, my wife took me to Hawaii in April. It was horrible. I was still so impacted by the severe winds, which for literally about 800 miles tried to kill us; that even a warm, gentle Hawaiian breeze felt like torture. She said, “I'm never taking you to Hawaii again. I will just put you in the living room and you will be fine there.”

But truly I was so impacted and so affected by some of those challenges, and to this day, we have those challenges that we deal with. For instance, my sleep pattern is shot. Like an old man, I get to sleep three hours at a time, and then I get to be awake three hours at a time. Actually that's perfectly good for running the Iditarod, because you have to find a good rhythm of resting and running: the fact that the dogs get about 43 or 44 percent time off does not mean that the driver gets the equal amount of time off. As soon as the dogs stop, I have to take care of them after I take care of myself a little bit. Like I said, one year I ran with a broken ankle, but some of you can understand how that is. If you have one paycheck coming a year, do you show up that Friday? I would think so. And this craziness we call the Iditarod equates to my yearly paycheck. So of course I showed up that day and kept hobbling along and kept on dealing with the situation.

There was actually one doctor amongst the 50 veterinarians. Eventually he looked at my ankle, and he says, “If you keep on going, it will be really horrible-looking.” I proved him right. Of course I kept on going, and eventually hobbled on to the finish line in a respectable sixth place. But you have got to keep on going and overcome it. The dogs, like I say, are extremely well-equipped; mushers, not so much. We have that fair skin. We cover ourselves up with good gear; protect our faces with fur roughs, as we call them. I, for that matter, will expose my skin and flash freeze the top of my face. At the finish line, I pull off that dermis and throw it away. Some of you ladies exfoliate; right? I do it every Iditarod. For an 85-year-old guy, I look pretty good, don't I?

All joking aside, you need to protect yourself not only from the outside in, but from the inside out. White Man's Muktuk, some of you Alaskans might know what that is. We call it butter. I have patties of salted Belgium butter in my sled. Whenever I feel the gummy bear in the stomach that has been on duty for the last few hours play ping-pong with itself, I need to fuel myself. Whenever I feel cold, whenever I feel shaky, I will dig into my dog food and my people supply and I fuel myself with whatever my body needs. The aforementioned 11,000 calories that the dogs burn are more impressive than the 6,500-to-7,500 calories I burn on a regular basis. And as we all know, fats, oils, and butters come in handy when you need extra calories. It doesn't work really well in a warm room and is probably most desirable out on the trail. That's why those indigenous diets I gravitate to, smoked fish or dried fish or the seal oil that you can dribble all over your supplies, keeps you fueled from the inside out. So we have great gear and we have great food for ourselves as well.

You guys deal with a lot of pressure, a lot of water. A lot of hot air too probably, but that's a different story. We deal with water evermore, which is a whole complete new equation. In the old days, we were just perfectly comfortable having warm gear. Now our warm gear that used to be breathable and very comfortable also has to be waterproof. I have indigenous Eskimo and Indian friends that have never seen water in January or February until just a few years ago. Now, being rained on is a completely new and challenging experience. Not only do we need clothing that keeps us nice and warm, we need dog gear that keeps the dogs warm, so I make Visqueen tents out of garbage bags and I cover them up with little throw blankets. I even wear a Hawaiian shirt to fend off the rain sometimes.

But we now have to deal with modern equipment. Most of you probably have heard of Gore-Tex. Gore-Tex-like clothing tries to keep us not only warm, but dry as well. All that stuff works great, kind of like a new car, until you walk out of the showroom, and then it doesn’t work as well.

The terrain is as varied as your imagination. Alaska is divided by a couple of major mountain ranges, and the Alaska Range, which sort of encircles Anchorage here, is one of the big obstacles that we have now overcome, and we find ourselves on the freeway. The greatest freeway for wintertime travel, of course, is the Yukon River. Thousands of miles of river give way to the trail system, and we only incorporate about 250 miles on the Yukon River. It's one of those love/hate relationships. You have come over rough terrain with no snow, with ups and downs and steep hills and switch-backs, and you can't wait for the Yukon River to accommodate your nowadays sometimes sit-down sleds. We have little sleds that we can rest our tired butts on. That helps an awful lot. It also lowers the wind resistance. But on the Yukon River, the wind howls in your face. It doesn't matter what direction you go, up river or down river, it seems the wind is always blowing in your face, so you have to deal with that. So you hunker behind your sled, you try to be out of the wind and out of the weather just to get off that Yukon River. So you can do another portage, the portage over the Whale Backs, going to the coast of Alaska, where we then will follow the coastal villages along the route, getting closer to the finish line. The weather is always sunny, nice, and warm when the photographers are out.

It's very, very hard to depict the 12 hours of daylight that we encounter every day by March. And that's one of the reasons the Iditarod is in March. By March we already experience 50/50 daylight to darkness. Presently we are already way beyond that, as you might have noticed. You can still read a newspaper at 10:30 in the afternoon. But it’s still daylight enough to tell time and to see what is going on. A few more weeks and it will be daylight almost all the way around the clock. If you are back here, we have a Solstice party every Solstice (on June 20 this year), and that's when you have definitely 24 hours of daylight.

So the day and night pattern changes as well as the rhythm of the race. The dogs rest, eat, run, rest, eat, run. That's a typical pattern of the dogs to fuel themselves. Very much like if you have a fast car, you probably don't want to pass up a gas station; you want to fuel that thing up before you go on another trip.

We can help propel the sled a little bit ourselves. When I was young I was a skier, so I introduced the ski poles. The mushers now have them and they help propel the sled. We pedal with our feet and ski pole with our arms. Pedal and pole helps to propel the sled forward. If there is a head wind, you actually would gain more time by just hunkering down. It's amazing how little a 200-pound guy can get behind a sled.

1991 was the most challenging storm anybody has ever overcome. In 1991, five of us got into a severe winter blizzard that affected the entire field. All of the sudden in the milky white soup, I thought I was going in the right direction, and then Susan Butcher, one of my mentors (she also has won four Iditarods) was coming opposite me; so one of us was wrong. Now, we finally parked our sleds literally shoulder-to-shoulder, and she's yelling at me over the howling storm. She says,” It can't be done. Nobody can make it through the storm. But knowing you, you will probably try to find out.”

I said, “Damn right.” So she went back to the checkpoint. I subsequently had a head-on with two more. One more champion, Joe Runyan, and eventually Timmy Osmar, were having a head-on with me as well. So, now, I can do simple math. To this day I can subtract. I was in fifth place, now I had three head-ons. So five, take away three—yes, thank you, very much, I'm now in second place. For the next 27 hours Eleanor, my lead dog, and I walked probably about a mile and a half an hour, ever closer to the finish line, and came into the finish about an hour after Rick Swenson, who set his unprecedented fifth championship record that year.

But that's where I learned to win. If you don't overcome, if you don't challenge yourself, if you don't work really hard, you are never going to be a champion. In that storm of '91, I challenged myself to the utmost to overcome a lot of mental challenges, as well as physical and environmental challenges, just to finish a lucky second. The following year I came back and broke the record for the first time in my 1992 win: simply because I was almost stuck in that storm back in 1991. Losses sometimes teach you a lot more about how to overcome, how to improve, and how to work on your future game plan than championships.

My wins were all downhill races. I could have given the dogs chocolate-chip cookies and they would have still won. Everything was a breeze. I had tail winds for most of the way, or at least it felt like that. The sail is a good example of a rule change that was allowed and then later disallowed. I invented a little sail that, if the wind was in my favor, I simply had a couple of big telescoping poles and I unfurled a little sail—I have more hot air than the rest of them—and it would propel the sled and help me get closer to the finish line.

My fellow competitors at the rules committee meetings—just like there are rules for making boilers and there are rules for making steam valves and all—always banter around technology and evolvement and new things. They said, “Martin is so full of hot air, we are not going to let him sail anymore.” So they disallowed the sail. I joked that I cut up the sail and made new blankets for the dogs, so now they have their own little comfortable blankets.

Don't let rules that are smart stymie development of new ideas. Don't give up because one thing didn't work. Don't let that stop you. I gladly admit that my "bad idea" pile behind the garage is way bigger than the "good idea" pile, but only if you have an occasional bad idea will you also have a decent one that might shake out, such as, for instance, the ski poles. I have never heard a dog complain when I take those ski poles out and help pedal and pole to propel that sled. They look at me and would give me a “four paws up” if they could.

During a race, I know when we are getting close to the finish line. Again, the terrain changes. We have now overcome the Whale Backs, the last of the mountain ranges, and you might expect the coast to be smooth and flat. We travel a lot on the frozen ocean. That's kind of an interesting scenario all by itself, because that is frozen ocean and it's about 200 feet down.

But we also have a lot of land masses to overcome. If you study the coastline of Alaska, there are long, long peninsulas that stick way out into the ocean. Rather than circumnavigating all those peninsulas, we go up and over Walla Walla and Kuchi Block. Little McKinley would be a good indicator of how challenging those climbs are. Not only is it at the tail end of the race, but, of course, it's also when you are the most fatigued, when you are the most challenged, when you are the most worn out. Then you add wind to it. Sometimes the ocean gets literally as polished as a mirror. The last two years, again because of weather and temperature changes, the wind takes what relatively little snow there is and polishes everything clean to the point where Wayne Gretzky could skip a hockey puck for two miles without ever touching it. Just imagine having a dozen or 14 dogs try to maneuver on that glare ice.

Only if you practice all kinds of scenarios will you be successful, and that's what we do on a year-round basis. Our dogs are so malleable; they are so comfortable with whatever environment we give them. Simply because they are so trusting to us, they do pretty much whatever we ask of them, and vice-versa. The reason the dogs get along so well with each other is, just like you guys, they have become socialized. These dogs are not wild animals. That's one of the common misconceptions. People expect to see a wild and wooly bunch of wolves. These dogs are domesticated, high-strung, well-disciplined, and very well trained.

The trail is depicted by tripods, by reflectors, by trail stakes, or by traffic that has worn down the terrain, and sometimes by an indentation that you can see for miles. This is not just the Iditarod trail. This is the trail of the indigenous people having traveled for generations, for eons, doing commerce, doing trade, traveling along the natural path of least resistance. That's what we are using to this day. We avoid the open water, obviously. So the trail makes sense in as far as most of you could follow it even without trail markers simply by picking the path of least resistance.

I talked about some of my early championships. My most rewarding championship was in 2002. On 9/11, I was a Swiss on paper. I was an Alaskan resident, but 9/11 prompted me to be a naturalized citizen. That day I sent off for my naturalization papers and started a six-month-long process which culminated to a pretty cool event: I was sworn in under the Burled Arch in Nome at the finish line as a naturalized citizen. I got to say the oath. And it was the first time the race had ever been done in less than nine days.

You cannot conjure that up. That was one of the greatest experiences anybody could ever have, simply because the energy was so great. I needed to prove to my then 12-and 14-year-old boys that this is the soil I wanted to defend, this is where I belonged.

And just a couple of days ago, I was honored to be inducted into the Sports Hall of Fame here in Alaska. That brings everything full circle. Now I'm back to being a full-time Alaskan as well as a U.S. resident.

My wife says she will stick it out with me just a little longer. I have run 34 races so far, and maybe I will do another 34—still fooling myself that I can carry the flag to the finish line. I was so glad they took that picture for the Hall of Fame, because that's really a momentous occasion. I call it my Norman Rockwell experience. And at the same time, I was honored to receive the Humanitarian Award for an unprecedented fifth time. Nobody has that honor more than Martin, and I'm really proud of it. 

I appreciate you having me here, and I want to say thank you very much. It was a great pleasure to be here.