Jamaican breaks new ground in Alaska dogsled race

AFP interviewed Jamaican dogsled racer Newton Marshall during a stop at a checkpoint in the Iditarod Great Sled Race.

Before he began racing sled dogs competitively, Newton Marshall had never traveled. “Nobody knew about dog sledding in Jamaica,” he says. The 27-year-old from St. Ann Parish in Jamaica, stopped to talk in Koyuk, Alaska, a checkpoint along the trail of the Iditarod Great Sled Race, to describe his unlikely journey into a cold-weather sport. Marshall had been working with horses as an adventure guide, when his boss asked him to help care for a few sled dogs for a little while.

One thing led to another, and soon Marshall and his company were using the dogs to pull sleds modified with the addition of wheels. At first, he admits, “I thought it would not work out.”

The company, Jamaica Dogsled Team, now offers the wheeled sled rides on the island as a tourist attraction. But for Marshall, they were a step to something bigger: training to run a real race in real snow. It wasn’t easy. For one thing, the conditions weren’t exactly what he would face in the north. “The weather was kinda warm, so we were doing it at five o’clock in the morning,” he recalls.

Still, the training paid off, and eventually Marshall found himself headed to Canada to race.

He still recalls stepping out of a plane in Whitehorse, in Canada’s Yukon Territory. He wasn’t wearing gloves. “All the sudden my finger was all stiff,” he laughs. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” he adds, on a more serious note. “I didn’t know what 18 below (zero) was; I didn’t know any of that stuff.” Marshall persevered, though, doing well in smaller races and qualifying for the 2009 Yukon Quest, a 1,600 kilometer (1,000-mile) sled race in Alaska and Canada.

Finishing the Quest brought Marshall some media attention — it’s tough to resist a story line about an athlete from a tropical nation competing in a cold weather event. And because he is from Jamaica, Marshall inevitably draws comparisons to the island nation’s Olympic bobsled team, whose travails and eventual success drew lots of attention and eventually were made into a 1993 movie titled “Cool Runnings.” “Everybody brings that up,” Marshall laughs. In fact, when he first took up the sport, friends teased him asking “Did they make a mistake and write dogsled?” he says. But all this was just a prelude to his 2010 Iditarod bid.

In the meantime, he has taken his training seriously. His trainer this year was Lance Mackey, of Fairbanks, who earlier this week won his fourth consecutive Iditarod this year in near-record time. Some of Marshall’s Iditarod team even comes from Mackey’s kennel. Hans Gatt, the second-place finisher, was Marshall’s coach before Mackey.

Despite his experience in the Quest and other races in Alaska and Canada, the Iditarod has still proven a challenge, Marshall says. It’s especially windy, and at times “I couldn’t see the trail.” Still, he’s pushing on, and even moving slowly forward in the pack, at a stage in the race when more than a dozen other mushers have scratched. Cold and weary, but with less than 270 kilometers (170 miles) to go in the 1,600-kilometer (1,000-mile) race, Marshall is closing in on his goal.

When he reaches the finishing line at the burled arch in Nome, he’ll be the first Jamaican to do so. He’ll bask in some well-deserved attention, then head home. What’s the first thing he’ll do when he gets there? “Go to the beach,” he laughs.

For the original report go to http://www.france24.com/en/20100319-jamaican-breaks-new-ground-alaska-dogsled-race

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