Meet Anna and Kristy Berington, Twin Sled Dog Racers

RealClearLife's Kinga Philipps catches up with the twins, who just completed the Iditarod.

March 19, 2018 5:00 am
Anna and Kristy Berington (via Instagram @seeingdoublesleddogracing)
Anna and Kristy Berington (via Instagram @seeingdoublesleddogracing)

Ten to fifteen days alone in the elements, in the frozen barrenness of Alaska’s rugged northern expanse, during a time of year when spring is barely creeping in, but its presence is still far from being felt, covering 1,049 miles of pure unadulterated wilderness. Jack London wrote about such things. Yet few of us will ever experience the true soul bending, body shattering dedication to outcome that comes from something like running the Iditarod Sled Dog Race.

Anna and Kristy Berington do it for fun, for passion, for the thrill of the journey that would make the softer of us retreat into our warm, insulated homes and be dreamily content to simply hear the stories made more palatable by the warm glow of a fireplace.

The identical twin sisters own Seeing Double Sled Dog Racing, a kennel with over 50 dogs. They spend their summers working and training and each March they run the legendary Iditarod. Kristy has been running since 2010. Anna since 2012.

This year the girls just completed the race, the 46th Iditarod, on March 17th. Anna in 22nd place with a race time of 10 days, 21 hours and 44 minutes and Kristy in 36th place with a race time of 11 days, 16hours and 8 minutes. That’s a week and a half of battling the elements and coming out on top.

These ladies are as tough as you imagine they are. They started their careers in the Army National Guard, regularly run triathlons, hunt for food, have worked in construction and commercial fishing … a la Deadliest Catch … and make extra income working for a local mortuary businesses … all while keeping their own kennel going. This is a good time for a slow clap.

Called the last great race on earth for good reason, the Iditarod crosses Alaska from Anchorage to Nome…all of it painfully and majestically unpolished and untouched by modern civilizations tempering presence. Sometimes it’s 60 below. Let that sink in.

This year’s cash purse of $500,000 will be shared among the top 20 mushers…that’s $25,000 each.  Everyone after that receives $1,049 … that’s a dollar per mile. A solid payout until you realize the cost of running the Iditarod rings in at about $22,000. But no one out there is doing it for the money.

Its route was once the menagerie of trails used by Alaska’s native people, then those coming to seek their fortunes in the gold rush at the turn of the last century. Miles of animal trails mixing with the occasional footprints of men seeking the pelts of those same creatures.

Those delicate marks of human presence might have long been erased by the ubiquitous and remorseless Alaskan elements, striking out any memory of our soft species, except for the 1925 diphtheria outbreak in Nome. Twenty dog sled teams carried life-saving serum 674 miles in 127 hours to prevent an outbreak that would have wiped out the town.

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race started in 1973  to commemorate the men and dogs who undertook that journey.  A statue of Balto, one of the lead dogs, still stands in New York City’s Central Park.

Women have been part of the race since nearly its inception. The two historical standouts are Mary Shields who was the first woman to finish in 1974 and Libby Riddles, the first woman to win in 1985.

Since the days of our earliest explorers, the human spirit has been drawn to meeting the challenges of facing head on the unforgiving forces of nature. The ultimate acceptance of the fragility of our existence, which is ultimately our greatest strength, lies in pushing that proverbial envelope.

Passion is a powerful driving force for people. How did yours develop and mold who you are and what you do?

Anna and Kristy Berington: We have always loved adventure, animals and endurance sports. Mushing is the best way to combine the three experiences. We grew up in Northern Wisconsin on a farm with parents who encouraged us to explore the great wide wilderness.

Describe what it means to be a professional musher.

A&K: It’s hard work and dedication. Putting your passion before comfort. There’s not a lot of money to be made in this sport, so the passion has to be there and deeply rooted in your core. For these dogs, you must be their coach, nutritionist, family, their everything.

The two of you started working with dogs at a very early age. When did you know this was more than just a passion, but a career?

A&K: It’s hard to call it a career, we work commercial fishing and carpentry all summer to make ends meet doing this sport. Very few people are able to make a living doing this. So it’s more of a way of life.

What was the path that led you to running dog sleds full time?

A&K: It is a full time “job,” animals need attention and care every day whether you feel like it or not, whether you’re sick or it’s a whiteout snow storm. We started doing kennel chores around 10 years old. Living on a farm teaches you good work ethic and love for your animals. We have since worked with a lot of other mushers learning the ropes to get where we are today.

What are the logistics of running the Iditarod? What do you eat, where do you sleep, what kind of provisions do you take? What are some insights I might not even think to ask?

A&K: We buy groceries for the dogs by the pallet and hundreds of pounds at a time. We harvest fish for them and butcher livestock for them. Two weeks before the start of the 1,049 mile Iditarod we send out our food drops. 1,500-2,000 pounds of food and supplies we will use on the trail to tend to 17 beating hearts including our own.

We eat, sleep and run with the dogs out in the wilderness. No tents, just straw and a sleeping bag between checkpoints. We start our training every August doing 2-4 mile runs building up to over 100 miles a day.

How do you physically train for something as strenuous as the Iditarod?

A&K: We are both runners, so we love running with the dogs. This lifestyle is lots of heavy lifting, long hours, constant movement sometimes with little to no sleep for days. Just doing this every day keeps us in really good shape.

Any interesting animal encounters out in the wild?

A&K: Moose are the most common and dangerous out on the trail. We have had several encounters that all ended well, fortunately.

I was shocked to read on your website that the cost of running the Iditarod is nearly $22,000? How do you finance this? What makes it worth it?

A&K: The entry fee alone is $4,000. Shipping out all your supplies is nearly a dollar a pound. Caring for one single canine athlete in a racing kennel is about $1,000 per dog. It’s very expensive. But extremely rewarding. It’s an incredible feeling to run across Alaska with 16 of your best friends. We work hard so we can play hard. We couldn’t do it without our sponsors.

How much of an inspiration are women like Mary Shields, the first woman to run the race in 1974 and Libby Riddles, the first woman to win in 1985?

A&K: Men and women compete on the same playing field. Age and gender don’t matter in our sport. Its great to have women winning the Iditarod. There have only been two individual winners. It’s come a long way over the years.

What’s it like to be successful woman in a relatively male-dominated space?

A&K: The field of women competing has grown to almost one-third of the field. Years ago I think it was a much bigger deal than it is these days. We are grateful for the women who paved the way.

How do you treat yourselves when you finish the race? Favorite meal? Massage?

A&K: After we make sure the dogs have everything they need we are desperate for more than two hours of sleep at a time, fresh veggies and fruit and a shower!

What do you do in the offseason?

A&K: We love endurance sports, so we compare in ultra marathons and triathlons. Getting ready for next year is a never-ending process.

Think about one of the most magical experiences you have had in the frozen wild with the dogs and take us there using the five senses.

A&K: Coming into Nome. It’s bittersweet, the end of an incredible journey. Your heart and mind are full of 1,000 miles of experiences, challenges, and triumphs. Sight, the team runs before you smooth, straight, determined as they climb the bank off the sea ice and onto front street. Sound, the town Tsunami siren screams announcing your arrival as the echo of the announcer bounces off nearby buildings. Fans cheer, hoot and whistle whether you’re first or last. Smell, the few local restaurants reek of fry oil and exhaust, both smells that have been so foreign for days. Touch, the grip on your handlebar loosens, the thought of the treacherous Dalzell Gorge a distant memory. Taste, the mouth is dry and the slight flavor of blood from chapped lips will soon be able to heal.

What moments in the wild that have: 1. Brought on a sense of awe 2. Surprised you by not being what you expected 3. Brought you to tears 4. Made you believe in magic?

A&K: Northern lights, full moonlight, the mountain ranges, mother nature’s ability to cast horrific winds, and weather, the dog’s amazing athletic ability, it’s all breathtaking.

Every once in a while a dog takes on a tremendous amount of responsibility that you never knew he or she was capable of. Maybe they took to the lead dog position in a storm or surprised you in another way.

I’ve been brought to tears almost every year as the epic adventure comes to an end in Nome. Losing a dog that you’ve raised and have seen grow and develop into an amazing athlete after miles of trail together breaks my heart every time.

Everyone has a message they put out into the world through their words, actions and lifestyle. What is yours?

A&K: Don’t let fear stand in the way of your dreams.

What future life goals do you have? Any big bucket list items, travels, career goals, etc.?

A&K: To keep improving with our dogs and continue to learn how we can do/be better for them.

Kristy: I want to continue to go on big adventures with my husband, have a family, race and run dogs until I can’t anymore, keep competing in Ultra Marathons and athletic events. Travel and live life to its fullest.

What do you feel are your biggest professional and personal accomplishments to date?

Kristy: Completing 8 Iditarod, a Yukon Quest, winning two ultra marathons, marrying the man of my dreams, & finding my place in Alaska.

Anna: finishing 6 Iditarod to date.

What other hobbies do you have that one might not expect?

Kristy: I enjoy harvesting firewood. It’s a regular chore, but I enjoy it. And running, it’s more of a part of our lifestyle than any other musher.

Any questions you wish journalists would ask you?

A&K: More about the dogs, their personalities. They’re like our children we love to brag about them. They’re all so different, fun and unique in their own way with stories about how we got them, races they stood out in, etc.


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