Musher Jana Henychová on dog sledding and Finnmarkslopet – the world’s northern-most race

Last month Czech dog sled racer Jana Henychová made history by becoming the first female foreign national to take part in Norway’s Finnmarkslopet, the world’s northern-most race: 1,000 kilometres in tough conditions and tough terrain. She completed the race in eight days, earning enormous respect from both fellow mushers and locals. And, even though she finished last, five others (out of a total of 36 racers) did not finish at all. This week Jana Henychová, who lives in northern Bohemia with her 23 huskies, stopped by Czech Radio to talk about the race and much more.

I asked her first how she began training huskies.

“I’ve had huskies for 12 years, maybe more. Like most people I started with one and then gradually became more interested in Siberian huskies and what one could do. So I bought two more, then a sled, and that was basically it. Things went very fast from there.”

Are huskies a popular breed in the Czech Republic?

“I hope not! You know, when a breed like this becomes popular people want to have one just so they can have a blue-eyed ‘teddy bear’ at home. But huskies are quite difficult to handle: you have to do a lot for these dogs, you have to spend a lot of time outside and it isn’t easy. To tell the truth, I am happy they are not that popular anymore.”

Did the fact that they need a lot of exercise influence you becoming a racer?

“You could say that. But, you know, I am originally a sportswoman: before this I did cross-country skiing, orienteering, mountain climbing. I have always been very active so it was more that I chose a dog that suited my lifestyle.”

The area where you live: is it good for sports?

“Yes, I would say so. I live in north Bohemia near the Jizera Mountains. Generally we get a lot of snow and it’s a beautiful landscape and there’s a lot of space!”

When you became a racer, what did you have to do? You had to buy equipment, tell me about that.

“You have to start step-by-step. You buy your first harness, then most people begin jogging with their dog, then on bike, then you get your first sled. Once you have a sled then you find that three dogs are not enough and then you wish to have more and more. Once you can go with 14, it’s great.”

Is 14 an official number in racing?

“No, not at all. 14 is just a good number for me. With 14 dogs you can race in something like Finnmarkslopet, with 16 you can try Iditarod. But normally in Europe you can go with two, four, six eight or more. There are different classes and how many dogs you have is up to you.”

How difficult is it to train Siberian huskies?

“What’s difficult is that you have to wait for cold weather: you can’t train in high summer, you need for it to be around 15 degrees or less. If you really want to train seriously it’s necessary to get up very early in the morning. Four am is ideal: that’s when it’s coldest. Your season begins in late August and you begin with five kilometres and gradually work your way up: by December you do 80 or 100 kilometres at a time.”

Are there different types among the dogs? Is there a leader and so on?

“Yeah! I have 23 dogs so you see big differences among them. One is lazy, one is smart, another a little stupid, another is hyperactive. It’s like with people: they are all different personalities. Each has its own character and you have to get to know them.”

Tell me about Finnmarkslopet: I understand you were the first Czech woman to take part and to complete the race?

“The am the first female foreign national to complete the race. Finnmarkslopet is raced in Norway and is the world’s northern-most race. It’s a great event: 1,000 kilometres. Lapland is beautiful, fantastic landscape, great people and I enjoyed it very much.”

I read that you had to prepare two months in advance on site, to get to know the terrain, is that right?

“Yes. I already knew a bit of the area from last year, when I took part in a 500 km race, as a first step. This year, I came to stay in advance. Without the experience of staying there, it isn’t possible to finish this race. Everything is totally different: you have to learn how to survive in such a big open space, how to survive in cold weather, stormy weather, and so on. So it’s important to be there.”

I understand that the race is day and night but you have to race sometime: where do you rest?

“It is a non-stop race but you have check points along the way, distances of 140 or 180 kilometres between them. There you have all comfort for dogs, straw and equipment you prepared in advance. You follow the check points. During the race, at some points you feel like you were on the moon. There are no trees, nothing expect for white all around. It’s so far, far away, it’s almost unbelievable. But you have to find a way to survive out there alone.”

What kind of feeling was it just to finish the race?

“Shortly before the finish line I had this feeling that it was taking forever. But when I crossed the finish line I thought ‘Oh wow, it’s over!’ and I was a bit sad. I don’t know, it’s almost impossible to describe. Everybody knows the books by Jack London or seen the films like White Fang on TV and I believe that many people wish that at least once in their life they could try it. To live as a musher.”

You can find out more about Jana Henychová, her huskies and programmes organised by the racer at www.huskies.cz