Just taking the dogs out, dear - I'll be back in two weeks

Lesley Monk, a 51-year-old from Burnley, explains to Mark MacKenzie why she and her team of huskies are going flat out to conquer the wastes of Alaska
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The Independent Online

While you are reading this, Lesley Monk is taking her dogs for a walk. Sixteen of them in fact, and not just for a quick once-round-the-park. All being well, the 51-year-old personal trainer from Lancashire is now one day into an 1,100-mile trek across the frozen Alaskan wilderness, the only British competitor in this year's Iditarod, the most demanding dog-sled race on earth.

While the winner of an event billed as "The Last Great Race in the Last Great Place" will be sipping victory champagne in front of a roaring fire inside of 10 days, Lesley and the other 67 mushers can expect several weeks on the trail, which will push them to the limits of their endurance. Polar bears, fragile river-ice and temperatures regularly below -60C are just some of the optional extras on a tour itinerary that requires sleep on the move as well as hours spent massaging weary canine shoulders and feet.

The race takes its name from the village of Iditarod, one of 26 checkpoints along the way as competitors race from Anchorage in the east of the state to Nome in the west, a rerun of an historic journey. In 1925, a Nome doctor wired Anchorage pleading for medicine for an outbreak of diptheria. With no other transport available, teams of mushers transported the serum in a dramatic relay across the frozen tundra. The patient was saved and, conveniently for the logo writers, the legend was born.

None of which explains how, for the third time in 14 years, a former hairdresser with a dysfunctional lung finds herself racing some of the hardiest backwoodsmen in North America across their own back yard. Lesley's first encounter with a husky, Alaska's working dog, was with one owned by a friend she was visiting in New York in the mid-Eighties. "In England, we were living on a farm in a highly touristy area," she explains, "On holiday, we were greeted by this gentle dog that looked incredibly fierce."

Deciding huskies were an excellent way to dissuade tourists from wandering up their drive, Lesley and her husband, Roy, tracked down a breeder in Britain. "The breeder explained the husky was a working dog, and only let me take one away on condition that I worked it. Three times a week, I would drive to the outskirts of Leeds and run the dog with a team behind a cart."

The Monks' obsession with the highly intelligent breed saw their canine family swell to 20 and eventually led them to Alaska and, via smaller qualifying races, to Lesley's first Iditarod in 1988.

"I was a total rookie and was pretty overwhelmed by the whole thing," she says. "I had one absolute dread, that I'd finish last and be out there in the wilderness all on my own."

Which is precisely what happened. Nineteen days after leaving Anchorage, having struggled to cope with the pace and physical demands of the race, Lesley crossed the finish line to claim the Red Lantern, the wooden spoon.

"I was devastated to finish so far back and I loathe talking about getting the Red Lantern. But with hindsight it was the best thing that could have happened, because now on the trail, there are very few things that phase me."

Her disappointment over her 1988 placing emphasises the fiercely competitive nature of the event. Lesley's next outing was in 1990, when she was forced to scratch after her sled and team went through thin ice attempting a river crossing. "The water was only thigh deep, but my sled sank and the dogs were in the water, getting tangled up in their gang lines. The problem was compounded by the following teams, who were jumping over us to get across and were getting tangled themselves."

While Lesley insists there is camaraderie between the mushers, competitors will only come to another's aid if a situation is life-threatening. Given that leading racers have also been known to confuse the chasing pack by removing trail markers as they pass, this clearly isn't the London Marathon. But then $50,000 (£35,000) in prize money is a hefty sum in outback Alaska. And bearing in mind that only four of this year's field are of Alaskan descent, $50,000, it seems, is a lot money everywhere else.

The Iditarod was first raced competitively in 1974, when it was won by Dick Wilmarth in 20 days. Around a dozen dogs died through exhaustion, the result of poor nutrition. Races since have had huge teams of vets, and the death rate has fallen to below four dogs per thousand.

While the Humane Society of the US have been trying to get the race banned for many years, race vets rightly contend that the death rate is about equal to that in a sedentary canine population. And animal welfare has certainly progressed from centuries past, when native Alaskans tethered husky bitches in woodland to mate with local wolves. If the wolf chose to mate with, rather than eat, his blind date, the outcome would be a litter of working dogs with a wild toughness.

"All the attention is focused on the dogs and nobody really cares about you," Lesley explains. "The rules state that the sled must have the capacity to carry an injured dog under cover, as well as demanding one compulsory 24-hour rest and two eight-hour breaks at checkpoints. These are on top of the camp breaks we take out on the trail. People who don't know these animals have no idea what they are capable of. Their speed and stamina are breathtaking, and if you get the right balance of personalities in your team, you can really fly."

While the demands on the dogs are immense, the demands on the mushers are equally daunting. "If the team is down for eight hours, the dogs are resting, but you're constantly working, rubbing ointment into cuts on feet, massaging joints, preparing food," says Lesley. "When you set off, you're exhausted and the dogs want to run like the wind."

And the treats in store back on the trail are many. Mushers need tremendous aerobic fitness to be able to scoot, skateboard style, with one leg on the sled for long distances. Should conditions become sticky, scooting turns to old-fashioned running to maintain the most prized weapon in the musher's armoury, momentum.

Standing still for extended periods also places tremendous strain on the arms and back, and should you take your eye off the trail at the wrong moment, you could wind up with a smack in the chops from an overhanging branch. And unless your screams carry across miles of wilderness, you're in trouble.

Yet despite the hazards, Lesley is undaunted. "I keep going back because I love it," she says. "Part of me just loves the call of the wild."

Follow Lesley Monk's progress at www.iditarod.com