Jamaican dogsledder gears for 1,500-mile race

By Shamille Scott Observer writer

Saturday, September 22, 2012    

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It was 55 degrees below; everything was freezing, his hands, his nose, and his feet. Never had he competed in snow, guided by dogs.

Newton Marshall is the Jamaican, now training to run the Iditarod next year. The Iditarod is an annual 1,500-mile race run in early March. Marshall and a team of 12 to16 dogs will compete in nine to 15 days.

Marshall's first race was in 2009 — the Yukon Quest — a 1,000 mile international dogsled race run every February between Fairbanks, Alaska, and Whitehorse, Yukon.

The winter can be harsh, it is a difficult trail, and the course is dubbed one of the toughest races in the world.

"I've never competed in anything in my life," said Marshall. It was new to him, being out in the snow was dreadful, and his only company was his dogs — Alaskan huskies.

Mushers, as they are called, pack up to 250 pounds (113 kg) of equipment and provisions for themselves and their dogs to survive between checkpoints.

It goes on for weeks. Invariably preparation is rigorous. Marshall has begun training for the upcoming winter event — the Sheep Mountain Race, a 150-mile event. This race will also condition him to compete in next year's Iditarod.

The winner will get up to US$60,000 ($5.3 million) in cash and a Dodge pickup.

The dogs are conditioned at the beginning of September. For the racing season, 42 dogs will be prepared. A four-wheeler will replace the sled. If the temperature is cool enough, Marshall will start with a three-mile course.

He, along with his coaches, Kelley Griffin and Ed Grube of the Silverbelle Kennels team, will run a dog each day. They will only take one day off. The course will gradually increase until the dogs are going up to 30 miles.

As the snow comes and at about six inches, they begin using a dogsled, gradually increasing the length of runs to about 50 miles or more.

Then, they will do camping trips.

"So, the answer to how many hours a day he trains varies," said Griffin. Sometimes three hours, sometimes three days, she added.

While on vacation in Jamaica earlier this year, Griffin and Grube met up with Newton and invited him to Alaska. According to Griffin, one thing led to another and he signed up for the Iditarod.

How did he end up doing this? Marshall said his upbringing and journey as a child are what he said helped to motivate him.

"Growing up, I was used to toughness, I was back and forth," Marshall said.

He was raised on a farm in Richmond Hill, St Ann. "I wanted to make something of myself. It was an opportunity and a chance for me to rise," Marshall said.

The musher recalls the Yukon Quest in 2009. "I was the only black man, the only one from the Caribbean," he said. "Only me," he added.

He hopes to see more participants from the region. "I was the only Jamaican against the world," he said.

Marshall, when he first entered, didn't have the correct gear. He stayed back at checkpoints to warm down.

That was where Griffin first met him. She was a judge and was impressed with his courage and how he handled the tasks given to him.

"There's not faking anything in the Yukon Quest," she said.

A musher is on his own for most of 1,000 miles, in the middle of nowhere and in the middle of winter, Griffin said.

Griffin confessed that she thought his competing was a publicity stunt. But, the race returned a courageous young man, totally out of his comfort zone. He completed a race which he shouldn't have, she said. "He had the weight of the world on his shoulders and a big smile on his face," Griffin added.

He finished the race, placing 13th out of 29 racers.

The weather can be unforgiving, -50F, even -60F. Getting wet equals death in those conditions.

He fell in water during the Iditarod in 2011, and didn't complete the race because his dogs got sick. It was about 30 degrees below.

"My feet almost froze," he said. Riddled by frost bites, officials used a hammer to get the ice off. Pliers were used to unlace his shoes.

Though he is miles away from his family, Marshall is in high spirits. Based on Marshall's reckoning, his success would be good for Jamaica. He said it will showcase that Jamaicans are everywhere, not just participating in athletics or the more popular games.

He talks to his friends and family via Skype. In terms of financial support, he has little. Newton cannot accept money in Alaska, and it is a very expensive sport, which makes it difficult.

To compete in the Iditarod, Marshall must pay US$3,000 ($266,400).

Newton will be taking a team of young dogs to Nome in November. He will be running a "puppy schedule" which is a very conservative run/rest schedule.

As for the Sheep Mountain Race, Griffin expects it will build Marshall.

"He will not be in last place, but will not be in first either," Griffin said. She expects that he will place in the middle standings, which will prepare him to be competitive, possibly winning in the Iditarod in 2013.



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