Danvers native Matt Giblin, 40, is having the time of his life mushing along the Iditarod Trail in Alaska’s great race. Teams undergo the most extreme conditions over 10-17 days and spanning 1,150 miles across the frozen tundra through the wilderness.
It takes a certain constitution to withstand the elements and severe conditions of Alaska. One must wonder how this former New Englander could possibly have prepared himself for the challenges he faces in this, his second Iditarod.
His brother Rob Giblin, 37, and living in Montana, thinks he knows.
“(He’s in) top physical shape. After running dogs year round, it gets you in complete shape,” Rob Giblin said. “I did it for three months over the summer and lost twenty-five pounds.”
The physical challenges endured in this particular race are unlike any other competition anywhere in the world. The Iditarod is fierce challenge, often referred to as “The Last Great Race On Earth.” With long hours of darkness and high winds, at times there is almost zero visibility in below freezing temperatures. The terrain at times is unforgiving, with frozen rivers, mountainous elevations and dense forests.
The most grueling part of the race is crossing the 400 miles of the interior and then crossing the frozen Yukon River on the Bering Sea coast. Matt Giblin will be looking at -50 degree temperatures with a -75 wind chill. Open water, severe wind, the potential for frostbite and downed trail markers by far make this the most hazardous part of the race.
Surviving the wilderness
Beyond his physical readiness, Matt Giblin will have to rely on his psychological toughness to navigate his team through the frozen coastline and mountain ranges on very little sleep. His brother Rob believes there is a huge connection between physical and psychological fitness. He explains how top physical shape leads to top mental shape for his brother and the dogs.
“He trusts his team and has confidence in all of them and that provides the mental edge he needs,” said Rob Giblin. Still, the lack of sleep during the race and the mental and physical exhaustion will prove a formidable hurdle. Throughout the typical 12-day duration of the race, Matt Giblin may sleep a total of just 24 hours.
“He will lose 30 pounds easily despite eating four thousand calories a day,” Rob Giblin said. The dogs eat 10,000 calories a day during the race.
Encounters with wilderness creatures are just a part of the ride, but Matt Giblin takes it all in stride, according to his brother.
“He was forced to defend his team from a moose twice this past training season,” Rob Giblin said. “Luckily, there were no problems as he was able to scare the animal off... Most other wildlife scatters when they hear the dog team.”
The journey to Alaska and mushing
The former Bishop Fenwick graduate, Class of ’89, showed no indication growing up in the family home at 13 Regent Dr. in Danvers that he would become an Alaskan celebrity in the dog sledding world.
“It was more of a ‘find yourself’ sort of thing that led him into mushing,” Rob Giblin believes. He describes a close family unit who are always there to support each other.
“All there is between all of us is support for what each of us does. If you want to do it, we all support it,” Rob Giblin said.
In the mid 1990s, after studying communications at Norwich University, Matt Giblin moved to Colorado where he became a tour guide at a kennel and began training sled dogs. In 1996, he had an opportunity to move to Alaska, where he trained and ran in the 1998 Iditarod.
Moving to Alaska to work as a trainer and musher at Mitch Seavey’s kennel began Matt Giblin’s journey as an Iditarod musher and local hero. For the 2011 Iditarod, Seavey chose him to run his team of younger dogs.
“Matt has the experience and the mental-physical capacity that Mitch was looking for,” said Rob Giblin.
“He finished the 1998 Iditarod, which is a huge accomplishment. He has finished the necessary qualifying events — the Knik 200 and the Copper Basin 300 — for the race and because he has already finished the Iditarod, he will never have to qualify again,” said Rob Giblin.
To date, Matt Giblin is the only Danvers native to compete in the historic event, with only 500 participants in the world competing since its inception in 1973.
Matt Giblin started a family migration to Montana, being the first to relocate out there in 2000. He was followed by his brother Rob three months later; family patriarch Tom arrived in 2005 with his two other sons David and Jake. Rob’s twin sister Amy rounded out the group in 2010. The family remains there, except for sister Sara who lives in Chicago, cheering Matt on in spirit while he continues to pursue his interests in Alaska.
“My reasons for running the Iditarod are numerous. The 2011 race for me will be the first part of a long-term goal,” writes Matt Giblin in his brief biography page at the official Iditarod Web site.
Training began for Matt Giblin in Haines, Alaska and Paxton, Alaska last year for this year’s odyssey. It’s a full-time commitment over eight months to build endurance for the dogs. Sessions can run up to nine hours straight with stops only to feed and rest the team, while covering close to 60 miles on the trail.
Matt Giblin is currently running a team of two-year-old Alaskan Huskies, owned by Seavey, in this year’s Iditarod.
During the summer, Matt Giblin is a tour guide for Coastal Helicopter and Blue Kennel’s Dogsled Tours in Juneau, Alaska, where he lives on a glacier and conducts tours for tourists who are helicoptered in daily. He receives a monthly stipend during winter training, proof positive that Giblin’s commitment to the challenge is purely out of love of the sport.
There are numerous checkpoints and veterinarian checks on the dogs throughout the race. In fact, according to Matt Giblin, many dogs will drop out along the way, flown off the trail by the Iditarod Airforce — a small contingent of pilots in two- to five-seater airplanes.
“Each musher will sign out of each checkpoint and list the number of dogs they have with them headed to the next checkpoint and so on until he finishes the race,” he said. “Each musher must finish the race with six dogs, so [ten] dogs can be dropped from your team during the race (and flown back to Anchorage for vet checks).”
Currently, Matt Giblin has 11 dogs and 600 miles to go. The weather, so far, has been warmer than expected and he has a stronger team of dogs this year than in his first race. Each musher’s sled has a GPS tracker attached to it. With an Iditarod Insider account, Rob Giblin has been able to follow his brother’s progress up to within 15 feet of his actual position and provide continual updates on Facebook for family and friends.
As of 5 p.m. Sunday evening, he was in 42nd place of 53 teams still in the race and traveling at an average speed of just over 7 mph. The race is expected to finish Tuesday and Wednesday for most teams. Rob Giblin said Matt is expected to finish within 11-12 days from his start, which means between Wednesday and Friday (March 16-18).
Once the race is over, all that’s left to do for Matt Giblin is pose for pictures.
“In Alaska, Matt is a celebrity,” Rob Giblin said, explaining for readers at home that there is a certain social status that comes along with being a musher in Alaska. “Matt as a musher in Alaska is akin to Dustin Pedroia as a Red Sox [player] in Boston. During the pre-race banquet, Matt signed over one thousand autographs.”
Rob Giblin knows there are still plenty of challenges ahead before his brother and his team can finally rest. At this point, the Giblin family is just focused on the task at hand, and wanting to see Matt on the other side of this experience.
“Because of the dangers involved and the length of time it will take for him to finish, all I want is for him to finish safely,” Rob Giblin said.