By Mona GableCindy Abbott's Iditarod ended a disappointing 345 miles shy of the finish in Nome, Alaska, but a courageous 642 miles from where she started in Anchorage - most of it run with an injury that doctors later determined to be a broken pelvis. It came to an end after 10 days on what was said to be one of the most difficult and dangerous trails in race history, in the dark of a bitterly cold night on March 13 along the frozen Yukon River about 10 miles from the Kaltag checkpoint.
Though scratching from the race was discouraging, Abbott remained upbeat about her accomplishment. "I'd just done 630 miles of extremely difficult terrain. Very few people in the world could do what I just did," she says. "I knew I was seriously injured. I know it wasn't just a muscle pull, and I am proud of what I did and what my dog team did."
Abbott was hurt just 20 miles into the race when her lead dog tried to follow the wrong path. As her sled veered, she fell, hitting the ice hard as she fought to wrestle her 14-dog team back onto the correct trail.
"I only had 20 miles to go to the next checkpoint," she says. But she was in such pain that she could barely move her leg. She lifted it and put it on the runner of her sled to continue. "When I got to the next checkpoint, my dogs were going crazy. They didn't want to stop." The next checkpoint was 30 miles farther along, "so I thought, 'I'll go to the next checkpoint so I can have a longer break.'" After reaching that checkpoint and resting for two hours, Abbott felt better so she "just kept going."
Her race was run on one of the most difficult courses ever. Warmer-than-usual weather had resulted in diminished snow, making the trail "extremely dangerous," she says. "I fell hundreds of times, and I knew I was damaging myself more and more each time I fell."
Still, she slogged on. "I had a responsibility to my dog team to keep going and to take care of them," Abbott says. "There was no rescue button for us out there."
However, her last leg, 60 miles between Eagle Island and Kaltag, a small village of some 234 people along the Yukon River, proved to be too much. She had covered about 50 miles when she decided to rest her dogs and herself for several hours. The weather was severe - windy and biting, perhaps as low as 35 degrees below zero. When it came time to resume the race, "the dogs really didn't want to go." So instead of pushing on, Abbott stayed put.
Abbott, like the others mushers in the race, was equipped with a tracking device, and when race officials noticed that she and her team had not moved for more than 26 hours they became alarmed. A medic and two snowmobiles were sent to look for her. By the time they found her, Abbott was close to shock and hypothermia. She still wanted to drive her team, but the medic wouldn't allow it. She completed the distance to Kaltag on a snowmobile, and it was there that she scratched. "For the good of the dogs, I needed to not carry on," she says.
Abbott and her dogs were flow by bush planes to Anchorage, where her broken pelvis was diagnosed, and from there she returned home to Orange County, California, her Iditarod journey over.
It was, indeed, a long and difficult journey, one that required years of training and preparation. In the days before Abbott was to embark on race, she busied herself with dozens of tasks. She had to pack enough food for her 14 mixed-breed sled dogs to last the entire 1,000-mile race. She had to load food for herself, a stove, a sleeping bag designed for the subzero cold, survival gear, coats and booties for her dogs, and an axe and other tools in case her sled broke. In all, she had to stuff 54 "drop" bags that would be scattered along the isolated narrow trail, stretching from Willow to Nome. Some nights on the trail, she would be getting as little as an hour's sleep, strapped in tightly to her sled so she wouldn't fall off as her dogs ran.
"I can't imagine how hard this is going to be," she said.
Still, the 54-year-old California State University, Fullerton lecturer seemed remarkably calm. For two years she'd left her comfortable home in Irvine, California, to train in Alaska with Lance Mackey, a four-time Iditarod champion and a cancer survivor who'd be competing too. Her living space during training was a Spartan 8-foot-by-12-foot unfinished plywood storage shed. Its scuffed floor was painted gray, and clear plastic sheeting covered the walls, revealing the wooden studs and several inches of pink insulation. She slept in a sleeping bag - no sheets or blankets - on top of a double bed pushed into a corner. Near the foot of the bed, a small oil stove with a stop sign as a base provided warmth. Sometimes it was too warm; Cindy said that even when it was minus-40 degrees outside she sometimes had to open the window or door because it got too hot to sleep. Her bathroom facilities were a small gray plastic camp toilet and blue pitcher on the floor next to the door. "I don't do outhouses," she said.
Before she could compete in the Iditarod, Abbott had to finish three qualifying races. On one of those races, she briefly lost her team. On another, she braved 50-mph winds. She lost the tip of one finger to frostbite.
And she had to do all this while contending with a life-threatening illness, Wegener's granulomatosis, a rare and incurable disease that causes inflammation of the blood vessels. Unlike the other 65 mushers who started the grueling race through the Alaskan wilderness, Abbott is carting a sack-load of medicine. Right up until race time, she and her physicians at UCLA were adjusting her treatments to withstand the brutal exposure she would face. "The doctor needed to change my main medicine that suppresses my immune system to help control my disease," she said, "We had to dose down on one and dose up on the other." Her daily regimen involves taking more than a dozen pills. During her races, Abbott times taking her medication to the periodic checkpoints or her dogs' rest-run cycle, rather than to the clock. She doesn't mind taking the pills, but she dislikes having to take her gloves off - exposing her hands to the biting cold - to do it.
Since her diagnosis, in August 2007, Abbott lost the sight in her left eye. She's had sinus surgery. She also has arthritis and suffers from almost constant pain. Cold is probably the worst thing she could do to herself. During the race, she wore prescription goggles so she can track her dogs and see their feet in the darkness along the trail. To say that she is determined, that she is focused, that she does not let her illness get in her way - a fact further attested to by her successful ascent of Mount Everest in 2010 - is an understatement. "I'm definitely a Type A and a pragmatist," she said.
Her physical efforts have made their mark. Abbott is slender and athletic, and appears very healthy and fit. Greeting a visitor to her training site at Mackey's Comeback Kennel with a big smile, her handshake is warm and firm. The only external signs of her illness are an occasional tilt of her heard as she focuses on the visitor's face while speaking, and a slight tremor in her hands.
Just as when Abbott climbed Everest, a feat that took her 54 days, she has a higher purpose. By competing in the Iditarod, she hopes to trigger awareness of the millions of Americans who suffer from rare diseases and to promote the National Organization for Rare Disorders.
"I went for 14 years undiagnosed with a really serious disease," Abbott explains, "when the whole time there was an answer out there. Nobody knew about doctors for rare diseases. I am doing this is so the next person doesn't have to go 14 years without knowing."
Abbott and her husband, Larry, are also producing a documentary of her journey; a film crew was there to capture her adventure as she advanced along the historic trail.
Asked to compare her Everest expedition with the Iditarod, Cindy says, "This is a lot harder. There are a lot more variables. On Everest, it was just me, and in this race I have the (dog) team. And the time I've had to spend away from family and home is a lot more significant and difficult." She stops and for a split second her composure slips.
By now, Abbott's doctors have gotten used to her ambitious athletic goals. David E. Fish, MD, an associate professor of orthopedics and the assistant program director of the Pain Medicine Fellowship at the VA/UCLA Multidisciplinary Program in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, helped alleviate Abbott's crippling back pain using radio frequency waves to burn the nerves sending pain signals to her joints. "She did so well, it allowed her to do the racing she did, so I'm pleased," he said.
"Now that I've done Everest and I've been mushing, they're just very supportive of me," Abbott said. "After I climbed Everest, it had such an inspirational effect on their other patients." Dr. Alan Gorn, a professor of rheumatology, showed pictures of Abbott atop Everest holding a National Organization for Rare Disorders banner. Dr. Gary Holland, a professor of ophthalmology, used her story to encourage people. "This isn't the end of the world," he told them. "You can still carry on at some level."
This is what Abbott hopes people will draw from her example, too. "Everybody has issues," says Abbott, about why she takes on these extreme challenges. "It doesn't even have to be a rare disease. They could be depressed or they're having money troubles. I want everybody to live life to its fullest. We all have hurdles. For a lot of people with my disease, walking their dogs would be their Iditarod."
Julie Stricker contributed to this article from Alaska.