Veteran musher Katherine Keith withdraws from this year's Iditarod, cites health concerns

Katherine Keith runs on the sea ice within the Nome city limits on her way to the finish line during the 2014 Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Courtesy Jeff Schultz of
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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Veteran musher Katherine Keith, who has run in more than half-a-dozen 1,000-mile sled dog races, has withdrawn from this year's running of the Last Great Race.

Keith announced that an ongoing health issue is to blame for her bowing out of this year's Iditarod.

"It's terribly heartbreaking to work for something all year," Keith said via phone Tuesday. "I was so sure I could do it: 'I don't care how ill I feel, I'm going to finish.'

"To basically pull the plug and quit felt like failure," she said.

The last-minute decision is due to an endocrine disorder that's she's been struggling with for years, acutely since October. When she's exposed to severe cold or is in a state of extreme fatigue, she said, she faces symptoms that include everything from throwing up to abrupt blood pressure changes that have sent her to the emergency room multiple times in the last few months alone.

"We've been trying to manage with meds, and I just haven't had everything in time for the doctors to feel like it [racing] would be a safe situation," Keith said. "At some point, I have to listen to them, despite my refusal to do so for months.

"People are out there racing through impossible circumstances, and that's the thing that's amazing about mushers," she said. "You look at DeeDee (Jonrowe), Jim Lanier, Lance (Mackey) - they've been to physical hell out there and they keep doing it. That was part of me refusing to give up; I aspire to be as tough as they are."

Don't let her fool you, though: Keith is tough as nails, as evidenced physically in multiple Ironman finishes, and mentally in handling some of the most intense personal struggles imaginable - including the death of an infant daughter some 15 years ago and death of a partner shortly after that - with a persistence through adversity few can match.

Per Iditarod records, the 41-year-old Keith was born in Minnesota and lived there through high school. An adventurist at heart, an interest in rock climbing took her all over the country, before she purchased an old ice cream truck and drove it to Alaska. It was here that she learned how to run a dog team, eventually calling Kotzebue home with her partner and a teenage daughter.

"It's what I look forward to all year, more than anything," Keith said of the Iditarod. "It's the time of my life, but that being said, if I'm not in a place to be strong enough to enjoy it and do the best I can and let the team do the best they can, it's better to wait for next year."

However, Keith said she's not completely down and out: She has a couple of big climbs still on her schedule this year, and is looking forward to continuing work on suicide prevention and awareness, following the death of a family member. She also said she wants to figure out how to still be part of the trail this year, and may be part of the Iditarod teaching efforts that get race-themed lessons into classrooms around the world.

"It's hard, but sometimes you have to look at where you're at, and just do what's best," Keith said. "I'll be there next year. That's the thing: You have to look at it in a different light.

"To not achieve my goal - and to not even start - is not a decision I take lightly," she said, "but it was the right decision."

Keith is currently in Minneapolis undergoing treatment. Her book, a memoir, will be released next February.

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