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Extreme dream: Cindy Abbott trains for Iditarod to raise awareness of rare disease

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Posted: Saturday, May 12, 2012 10:21 pm

FAIRBANKS - It took Cindy Abbott 14 years to learn she had Wegener’s granulomatosis, a rare vascular disease that affects about 1 in 20,000 to 30,000 people.

In an attempt to raise awareness about rare diseases, Abbott will attempt to do something incredible in far less time: run the 2013 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

It’s not her first attempt at preparing for an extreme adventure. Abbott summited Mount Everest in 2010, just years after finally discovering the root of her illness. She isn’t messing around when it comes to her Iditarod training, either. She’s partnered with Lance Mackey, four-time Yukon Quest and Iditarod champion.

•••

After summiting Everest, Abbott was looking for another adventure. As a college student 20 years ago, studying kinesiology at California State University, Fullerton (where she now works as a part-time faculty member), Abbott remembered reading about two different extreme challenges — Everest and the Iditarod. It was one of those things that stuck in her mind and was only exacerbated by adventure junkies edging her on.

“Everyone’s going, ‘What’s next? What are you going to do? Are you going to run the Iditarod?’” she said. “Well ... yeah.”

•••

It took years of misdiagnoses, but in 2007 she was finally diagnosed Wegner’s granulomatosis, also known as granulomatosis with Polyangitis, a disease where the immune system attacks blood vessels.

The disease is incurable and often fatal, but Abbott, 53, is able to keep it in check with a 16-pill-a-day medication regimen.

The reason for taking on such extreme feats is to raise awareness for rare diseases. There are 7,000 rare diseases, which are classified as a chronic illnesse affecting fewer than 200,000 people. About 30 million people in the U.S. suffer from rare disease, according to NORD, the National Organization for Rare Disorders.

“There was an answer, but no one knew to divert me to it,” she said. “That’s what I’m going to do. If weird (symptoms) are happening, log on to (the NORD) website.”

Despite losing vision in her left eye to the disease, in 2007 Abbott began training to climb Mount Everest after watching a Discovery Channel documentary. Over the course of three years she trained, climbing as many peaks as she could before summitting Everest.

•••

As a part-time university faculty member and owner of a tax preparation business with her husband, Larry, her Iditarod training is truncated. She visits Fairbanks and the Comeback Kennels as often as she can, mostly between class schedules. She’s made nine trips from her home in Irvine, Calif., since connecting with Mackey in March 2011, each one lasting between four or five days at a time. It’s been a whirlwind, but she’s managed to make it work. Even if her sixth time standing on a sled was at the start of the Sheep Mountain 150 in December.

“There’s so much stuff to learn,” she said. “It’s mind-boggling.”

Mackey has shown Abbott through the process, teaching her everything step-by-step. Mackey admits he’s not a patient teacher, but with help from his stepson, Cain Carter, Abbott has been able to keep up. It’s been a steep curve, but one she’s embracing.

“She’s taking the final, but hasn’t even studied,” Mackey said.

For example, on the Sheep Mountain 150 she took a wrong turn 50 miles into the race, looping around to the start instead of doing the proper out-and-back on the course. She ended up scratching, not wanting to put additional miles on the dogs. Mackey said that’s what he gets for not teaching her how to read course markers before the race. Regardless, Abbott has looked at the mistakes as a learning experience.

“Her attitude’s always been positive,” Mackey said. “She’s smiling even when she’s going in the wrong direction.”

•••

Abbott had to scratch from the Gin Gin 200 after encountering poor trail conditions. She was on track to finish the Copper Basin 300 but the race was canceled part way through after deep snow and bitter cold made the trail impassible.

Abbott said it’s harder to mush and deal with her condition than it was to climb Everest. Not only does her limited vision affect her depth perception but the vascular nature of her disease can also interfere with blood flow in her extremities. It’s also harder to manage the disease riding on the back of a dog sled. Instead of just being able to stop on the side of a mountain to take a pill, she has to control the dog team, find the medicine and find some water.

The only qualifier she finished lasted season was the Yukon Quest 300. She was proud to finish the race with all 10 of the dogs she started with and in sixth place.

It was an “awesome” experience that left her feeling more confident and informed than before. While she was slow, her training with Mackey taught her to be meticulous with dog care.

She realized as she crossed over Eagle Summit, facing the sheer cliff down toward Central, that the dogs trusted her.

“I call them my dogs — Lance doesn’t mind,” she said.

Contact features editor Suzanna Caldwell at 459-7504.

For more information on Cindy Abbott, visit her website at reachingbeyondthe clouds.com/

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