Thursday, April 20, 2023


Mackay and Whitsunday Life

Sledding To Success

It’s a narrative not unlike that of the Jamaican bobsled team.

An athlete preparing for a sport that takes place in the north American winter, training in tropical heat with not a flake of snow in sight.

The Iditarod is the biggest sporting event in Alaska; an annual long-distance sled dog race across 1,500 kilometres, seeing teams race through blizzards, sub-zero temperatures and gale-force winds.

Mackay’s Christian Turner was an unlikely late entry in the 2023 race, but the circumstances around his entry meant gave him a very good chance for success.

At 18 years old and living in Sydney at the time, Mr Turner moved to Canada where a love for snowboarding transformed into a passion for snow dog sledding.

“I got interested in the racing side of things and did a bunch of races in Canada, and decided that I wanted to do the big, long-distance races in Alaska,” Mr Turner said.

He undertook the intense qualification process required to enter the Iditarod and entered his first “last great race” in 2014.

Finishing the course in 11 days and four hours and placing 38th, Mr Turner said the experience was cold and brutal.

But it only fuelled his love of the sport; returning in 2015, Mr Turner finished the race in a career best nine days and 16 hours, placing 15th.

It looked to be his last Iditarod until, eight years later, a unique opportunity presented itself when friend and three-time Iditarod champion, Mitch Seavey, injured his back and was unable to race.

“There’s only a couple of people in the world who are qualified and good to go so he got in contact with me and asked if I wanted to take his team,” Mr Turner said.

With the dogs already in Alaska, there was only so much training he could do in Mackay.

“As soon as I found out, I was hard into my cardio, running Mount Pleasant Hill and riding my bike about 10 kilometres every morning,” he said.

“A lot of the trail is snowy mountains where you’re helping the dogs up the hills, running beside the sled, kicking on the flats; the fitter you are, the easier it’s going to be for the dogs.”

Mr Turner then made the trip to Alaska, training with the dogs before embarking on his third Iditarod and his first in eight years, with a team that came with great expectations and unique challenges.

“Looking after the team is the biggest thing, because you’re out there in minus 40 and you’ve got to make sure they’re getting the right intake of food and make sure they’re wearing the right winter clothes,” he said.

“You’ve got to have a rapport with the dogs; them understanding you, understanding you’re the boss and knowing you’re not going to put them in a situation that they can’t handle.

“My team caught a virus about 500 miles in and basically, for the rest of the race, I was just trying to make it to the end.

“I went from sixth position back to 18th very quickly just because they weren’t eating.

“The race was over for me midway, so I was just trying to care for the dogs and make it to the end.”

Once the dogs were healthy again, Mr Turner persevered, clawing back to finish the race in 10 days and one hour, placing 13th.

“It was quite mentally draining knowing I had such a good team, and, without the virus, I think I would’ve been right up there,” he said.

Regardless of the result, Mr Turner said it was good to back in Alaska where the reception was glorious.

“At the start of the race, you’ve got thousands of people throughout the city having barbecues and cheering you on,” he said.

“It’s a big party, really.”

A builder in Mackay with a young family, Mr Turner said he has no real urge to recommit to the Iditarod but if a similar opportunity were to present itself, he wouldn’t be able to say no.

Mackay builder Christian Turner finished 13th in the “last great race on earth”, the Iditarod, in Alaska in March. Photos supplied: Christian Turner

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