DAWSON, Yukon Territory -- Rookie musher Shannon Brockman has been dragged down a steep summit clinging to her side-sliding dog sled, slogged through frigid open water and bounced from ice jam to ice jam in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.
But the 32-year-old from Nenana is in an elite group. She's sitting in the top 10 in the 1,000-mile race from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.
Brockman is leading two former Yukon Quest champions, Tim Osmar and Rick Mackey, but she seemed oblivious to her success.
"I hadn't really thought about it," the musher said. Brockman headed out for Pelly Crossing at 2:15 a.m. Sunday, the ninth competitor to leave Dawson, with about 500 miles to the finish.
Peter Butteri of Tok remained on top of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race late this morning, when he was the first to arrive at Pelly Crossing.
Butteri pulled into the checkpoint at 8:40 a.m., followed by Joran Freeman of Two Rivers, who arrived at 9:30 a.m. Pelly Crossing is 260 miles from the finish line in Whitehorse.
In all, 31 mushers are expected in Pelly Crossing, 200 miles from Dawson, sometime today.
Brockman was an athletic child who ran cross-country and practiced ballet for seven years in Canada. She says her first real challenge was going away to college in Montreal.
"I kind of got off on it," Brockman said. "Over the years, I've been putting myself in challenging situations."
Brockman started running dogs for a trapline. She graduated to huskies after housesitting for some dog-musher friends.
"I knew I wanted to see what having a sled dog team was all about," she said.
So far, it's been great for Brockman, who is married to Andy Elsberg, also a musher.
She showed her ability when she took third place in the Quest 250 sled dog race in 2000. Last year, she placed second in the Denali 300. Now, she's running the Quest to up the ante.
"I find dog mushing challenging physically and mentally and emotionally and intellectually," she said. "Dogs kind of encompass your whole life."
Studying at the University of Alaska Fairbanks is what brought Brockman, who now works as a geologist, to Alaska.
Her family in London, Ontario, are glued to the Internet watching her progression in the race.
"We are just off the walls, to be honest," said Brockman's mother, Mary Riley-Brockman, in a telephone interview. "We are down here on computers all day long. I can hardly work this week, quite frankly."
Riley-Brockman says Shannon, probably the toughest of her three children, has "a very, very strong will."
At the Eagle checkpoint a few days ago, Brockman poured syrup over a piece of ham and stuffed the concoction into her mouth while still wearing black fingerless gloves.
Her long, brownish hair was in braids but the unbraided hair was matted. Her cheeks were rosy and when she smiled, which she does often, she exposed perfectly straight teeth.
Brockman was bummed out and fretting over her position.
"I had to haul a 72-pound dog 60 miles through jumbled ice," she said. "The trail is really hard. I've been scared a couple of times."
But when Brockman tells the stories of her troubles, she laughs and calls herself the "classic rookie." For example, the dog in the sled going across the jumbled ice kept getting knocked out, so Brockman had to stop and load the dog back up.
The musher is so focused she spends much of her time on the trail thinking about the chores she'll do when she gets to the next checkpoint. Brockman says the secret to her success is that she sticks to a plan.
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