Blair Braverman and his "ugly dogs" get ready for his first Iditarod: NPR

New recruit Blair Braverman and his dogs will compete in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, traveling over 900 km across Alaska, from Anchorage to Nome, and will face sub-zero temperatures and challenging trails.

Courtesy of Blair Braverman

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Courtesy of Blair Braverman

New recruit Blair Braverman and his dogs will compete in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, traveling over 900 km across Alaska, from Anchorage to Nome, and will face sub-zero temperatures and challenging trails.

Courtesy of Blair Braverman

You know LeBron, Serena and Messi.

But do you know Pepe, Flame and Jenga?

They are another kind of super single name athlete with fans – sled dogs getting ready for Iditarod.

Blair Braverman, the team's musher, will take his team for the very first time when the race begins Saturday, riding 938 kilometers of track through Alaska, from Anchorage to Nome.

It was an exhausting race that lasted nine and a half days to the last winner, with unpredictable conditions, mandatory breaks and the famous "Happy River Steps", three almost vertical gradients early in the course, one of the many pitfalls for mushers trying not to crash.

But this recruit is ready. Braverman shipped food in advance in bush planes, studied weather conditions, repaired equipment, and developed plans.

"How can you not think of a 900-mile race?" she tells Ari Shapiro of NPR. "There are so many different things that have to come in. It's like chess in the snow."

Braverman, a dog sled, author and correspondent of On the outside magazine, is one of 17 women participating in the 2009 edition of Iditarod, which represents a record of 32.7%. The largest shopping center

"Mushing is one of the few sports where men and women compete at the elite level," she says. "We are taken seriously as athletes because there is no chance for people to tell us that we are not on the same field."

But she does not consider herself an athlete. She is also a coach, nutritionist, mother and even a veterinary technician. All of her dogs, 14 hand-picked riders from a group of 20 that she coached, have undergone as thorough medical exams as the preparations of any professional NBA or NFL athlete, ECGs to vaccines.

"They were scrutinized by this wonderful team of veterinary volunteers," said Braverman. "And I'm happy to announce that they have all the best grades in all their medical records, and that they are doing very well."

Dogs are a sharp but heterogeneous crew of strong personalities. Pepe is the stable and "mature" leader of the pack. Flame is "the shadow" of Braverman, who ran with her at every qualification. Jenga is the half-sister of Flame who "do not suffer the fools. "

And there are others, like Boudica, who loves sweet Kisses, Colbert, a "hunk" that is scared of heightsand Grinch, who did not make the Iditarod team because he had management problems. During a recent outing, he stopped dead and refused to run after Braverman returned the sled to head north instead of south.

"He has the biggest heart," she says. "The most energy, and he's incredibly stupid."

The way she talks to them makes it clear that Braverman loves his dogs. And this love story led her to start writing and tweeting. She describes the runners as you write about old friends, sharing their quirks, their emotions and their setbacks with tens of thousands of followers. She calls her disciples #UglyDogs, co-opting a lobbed phrase to her online.

"A Twitter troll actually said: 'Go back to your ugly dogs, Karen.' "(She does not call Karen)." But I thought it was a beautiful phrase … So some team fans said, "We should be ugly dogs because you will always come back to us. "So it took off. "

Braverman suspects that his account has gained ground because dog sledding is a rural sport that takes place almost out of sight. And his dogs allow fans to introduce him. She spares no detail, how to put ankle boots on a dog that does not like her feet touched, to her crew intestinal movements.

"People get to know these dogs as pets as friends and they also see them as elite athletes," she says. "It's like rooting for your favorite sports team, but it's all dogs."

One of the biggest misconceptions that she is trying to dispel? That dogs are disposable. They are animals with whom she has lived for years, she says, and she knows them individually.

"I think rather than telling people how much we love these dogs," she says, "they can only feel how much we love these dogs and how much we accompany them at every step."

Braverman's long days of preparation are coming to an end quickly. The Iditarod will start Saturday morning in Alaska, and she admits that it's terrifying to think about the race ahead.

But, she adds, "if I think about being with my dogs who are my best friends and family, it gives me so much strength." Long days, lack of sleep, negative temperatures – she's attacking all of this with Pepe, Flame and the rest of her dogs. And that's all the courage she needs.

The broadcast version of this story was produced by Dave Blanchard and edited by Matt Ozug.

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