In the middle of March, the light is flooding back over the still snow-covered tundra and small spruce in central Alaska. My husband and I visit our small cabin in Denali National Park several years ago when no tourists are present, but only a handful of hardy locals who spend both summer and winter in this harshly beautiful land. The last morning of our visit, we have breakfast at the unusually wonderful restaurant of 229 Parks. Six of nine people in the restaurant are wearing the large brass belt buckle won by Iditarod finishers, but they are not alone in their accomplishments. We drink our coffee talking with Debbie Moderow, who despite eschewing the large buckle has put in her time on the trail.
One of the popular bumper stickers in my home state of Alaska is “Alaska: where men are men and women win the Iditarod.” This references Libby Riddle, first woman to win the legendary Iditarod dog sled race, 1100 miles across the state of Alaska, and later Susan Butcher who won the grueling race four times. This race is not for the faint of heart.
The Moderows spend half of their time in a lovely timber frame home nestled into the tundra and black spruce just south of Denali National Park. Just out the front door is a dog yard which at one time contained 34 Alaskan huskies, the mixed breed dog bred specifically bred for the long athletic event called the Iditarod. In mushing, both dogs and mushers are athletes, and the musher supports the dogs’ efforts. It requires long hours and days and even nights of training in the harsh winter conditions and low light of Alaska, a particular kind of grit, and a special relationship between humans and dogs.
Debbie Moderow, like Libby Riddle an unassuming woman with blond hair and blue eyes, was top of my list when I started thinking about The Grit Project. Anyone who trains for and runs a one-thousand mile dogsled race in temperatures of forty to fifty below zero, and takes her dog team up and down mountain ranges, and across icy rivers and oceans, knows something about grit.
She tells me of one of the hardest moments for her own the trail.
“I was 200 miles from the finish line (out of 1100 miles) on my first Iditarod,” Debbie says. "I was beginning to doubt myself. Dogs read mushers really well. We left a village called Shaktoolik and headed onto the sea ice. Ice was creaking, it smelled like salt, and it was probably zero degrees with a stiff wind out on that wide expanse of white. It was white, white white white, only white. and my dogs sat down on the sea ice. They wouldn’t move. I always worried about being athletic enough to handle the team, but I had never seen anything like this. My dogs were spooked. I was devastated by the broken bond with the dogs. I don’t remember a lot of races; @@It’s the races where something went wrong that meant most to me.@@”
In many ways, Debbie is an unlikely dog musher. She grew up in Connecticut and went west to climb. She met her husband in Wyoming, and headed to Alaska. “I’m passionate enough and I’ve been given a lot of lucky breaks so @@I can live life the way I want to live it.@@” Debbie worked for Xerox until after her second child when “it felt really wrong to me. I’ve been fortunate to have an education to have a variety of skills so that I could make a choice to work flex time while spending a lot of time with my family.”
It wasn’t time or the need for a hobby that brought Debbie to mushing or the Iditarod. She describes her passion as part of a bigger experience.
“After my second child, I had three mid-pregnancy miscarriages,” Debbie confides. “I'm pretty resilient, but when I lost that third baby I was really affected. Within a year of my third loss, an Iditarod friend tried to cheer me up with a retired, gorgeous white husky. Salt literally and metaphorically pulled me out of my sorrow.
Our dog team existed for our children first. For the first eight years we developed the team for our kids. At age fourteen our son Andy was the first in our family to go overnight on a dog race. I thought I’d never see him again. Andy ran Iditarod the year between high school and college with (Martin) Buser’s dogs and under the arch at Nome, Andy said “Mom, you have to do this.” When the kids left for college we had twenty dogs in the yard. With an empty house I was despondent again. This is the first time I considered it, because it was delivered in the context of a family legacy.” In the years to follow, both Debbie and her husband Mark completed the Iditarod, and her daughter Hannah ran the Serum Run, mushing the entire length of the Iditarod trail but stopping to talk to school kids in villages along the way.
Debbie attributes the outlook that brought her across the country, up mountains, into crevasses and along the Iditarod trail to her upbringing. “My father instilled a lot of the principles that made me who I am to be,” Debbie says, “and my mother was an adventurer at heart who never felt like she had to make a big deal about being a woman, including fly fishing and flying.” She laughs: “Did I ever tell you she flew under the Brooklyn Bridge? I told her she could have been famous, and she said: who wants that? All of this gave me a gender-blind attitude about life, a reverence for looking at what really matters and instilled in me a determination to be nimble.”
This is already sounding a lot like grit. Debbie’s not sure, though.
“Grit: what is that? Let me see what you say.” She laughs and reads the definition I have posted on my page. “Particles of sand— I like that,” she says, and her writer side begins to shine though. Grit is pretty subjective,” she says. “To me what gives people grit is the most important part. Whether you’re born into a situation where you need it to thrive, or whether you’re fearful of something. @@The ability to navigate those stories or particles of sand is what matters@@.
“True courage I might have come upon once in an infrequent while. @@We’re thrown a lot of knocks in life— grit is looking for an opening where you can get through@@.”
She doesn’t think of herself as fearless. “I can get as seized up as much as anybody. Whether I’m worried about a mountain crossing or my husband making it home on icy roads, @@I no longer tell myself to “be tough.” It’s more: how can I find another way in or out?@@”
I ask Debbie about the hardest lesson she’s learned. “The hardest lesson to get through my pollyanna head was that @@success can be very messy@@. I’ve led a very goal oriented life. Neither of my Iditarod runs were easy. It’s been hard to learn to engage in the satisfaction and joy of finishing knowing it was messy.”
“But I owned it,” Debbie says, and there is confidence in her voice. “When I got to the finish line and people said congratulations, I said thank you.”
This isn’t what is most important to Debbie though. “It was a gift to get to the finish line,” she says, “but the gift is not the finish line. @@The lesson of Iditarod was being able to look back from the finish line.@@”
And even the race itself isn’t what Debbie prizes most. “What I treasure most over my years mushing is my relationship with the dogs. I believe interaction with another species gives us insight into what it means to be human.”
Now Debbie is a writer. After finishing her MFA at Pacific Lutheran University, her first book, Fast Into the Night, just came out, so you can read the rest of her story there. “I’ve always felt that I was very fortunate to have a chance to live a creative life and that if I could harness that creativity and give something back to the world it would be my highest calling.”
Debbie tells the story of both of her Iditarod runs in Fast Into the Night, and by this point, it’s clear it wasn’t an easy road. This too, she sees as an important lesson. “If Iditarod had gone well it would have perpetuated my immature views.” Debbie had to figure out what worked uniquely for her along the way. “I studied what the pros do, but @@I had to figure out what worked for me.@@” She says. “Understanding that is what gave me insights I needed for Iditarod.”
What does Debbie think about developing grit? “@@When the going gets tough, that’s when you need to pay attention, and not just react with forward momentum.@@ I have a pretty type-A personality. I still don’t know why I have three children who won’t walk on this earth, but @@I had to find a way to get through.@@”
Thousands of miles later on ice and snow, and thousands of words, too, she has.
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