A Dog Sled Champ's Battle with Cancer Susan Butcher, who won the grueling Iditarod race four times, died over the weekend. Libby Riddles, the first woman to win the Alaska competition, remembers Butcher as a fierce competitor who was strongly devoted to her dogs.
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A Dog Sled Champ's Battle with Cancer

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A Dog Sled Champ's Battle with Cancer

A Dog Sled Champ's Battle with Cancer

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Susan Butcher, the four-time winner of Alaska's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race died this weekend at the age of 51. She had leukemia and suffered complications after a bone marrow transplant. In an interview on this program in 1983, Butcher talked about the final push of the 1,100-mile race.

Ms. SUSAN BUTCHER (Four-time Winner, Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race): You get about an hour of sleep a day. For the last 300 miles, from Unalakleet on, once you hit the coast, it's pretty much a constant push for the musher. You're resting the dogs, say, you're mushing them five to six hours and then resting them four. But a four-hour rest provides no rest for the mushers, because we have to cook for them and feed them.

BLOCK: Susan Butcher was raised in Massachusetts. When she was 20, she moved to Alaska with a friend and some dogs to live off the land in a log cabin 40 miles from the nearest neighbor. She won her first Iditarod in 1986, her last in 1990. No woman has won it since.

Earlier today I talked about Susan Butcher with Libby Riddles, the first woman to win the Iditarod, in 1985.

Ms. LIBBY RIDDLES (Professional Dog Sled Racer): For whatever reason, Susan was just a very driven person, and she was also very good at this. You know, she really knew her dogs well, and she was something of a protégé of Joe Redington, the man who started the Iditarod. And she was just very dedicated, very thorough and very competitive.

BLOCK: Do you have memories of seeing her out on the trail in one of those Iditarod races?

Ms. RIDDLES: Even before I ran the Iditarod. I mean, she was kind of legend for how tough she was. I mean, she'd do things like they'd put a hole in the ice out by Wasilla, and she did a kind of promotional thing where she drove by with her dog team and then jumped in through the ice in her swimming suit. And, you know, so she just had that real tough Alaskan reputation even then.

And back when she ran her first Iditarod, there was three gals all training together. My friend Shelley Gill, and Verona Thompson and Susan all trained together and they called them beauty, brains and brawn. So Susan was the brawn and Shelley was the brains, Verona the beauty.

BLOCK: You were talking about Susan Butcher's relationships with her dogs. She was known - she raised all of her dogs from puppies, and had wanted to be a vet, actually, and studied to be a vet. Do you think that she had some special talent with her dogs because of that background?

Ms. RIDDLES: Well, all of us that go into this are drawn to it because we love our dogs, but some people are better at it than others, and I think Susan had a really good eye for what was a good dog and ideas on how to train them and, you know, how to manage them out in the Iditarod.

Because these dogs are very temperamental and very willful, and you can't push them too far or they're going to just quit on you. So you have to know these dogs very well, and obviously she did. The relationship she had with her dogs, I know her and Rick Swenson both named their kids after their lead dogs. That's how much we think of these dogs.

BLOCK: She has two daughters.

Ms. RIDDLES: Yeah, yeah. And I know at least the older one was named after her lead dog, Tekla. I'm not sure if Chisana was named after one of the dogs, too, but I do think, you know, her husband, David Monson, that's been a big part of Susan's success, too. I mean, he's been a great support to her and helped her kind of behind the scenes, and I know she was really, you know, loving being a mom and, you know, having her daughters. It was really special to her, and she was really proud of that, too.

BLOCK: David Monson was himself a musher?

Ms. RIDDLES: Oh, yeah.

BLOCK: When you think about Susan Butcher and her legacy for - and what she means for sled-dog racing, what do you think it is? What do you think she leaves behind?

Ms. RIDDLES: She's one that we're going to be proud of here forever. You know, it's just a part of our Alaska history now, and you know, I just hope she's an exemplification of what we've got going on here in Alaska - people that love the wilderness and love being out there with their animals out in the wilderness, and trying to keep a lifestyle alive up here. And she was a very great role model for that. She loved the dogs and loved being out there with them.

BLOCK: That's Libby Riddles talking with us about her fellow Iditarod champion, Susan Butcher, who died on Saturday. She was 51. Her husband, David Monson, said it was peaceful. The rest after her greatest race.

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