Snow Dogs Meets Cool Runnings: The Story of Jamaican Musher Newton Marshall

You won’t find Newton Marshall among the Iditarod leaders charging towards Nome in what is shaping up as another classic finish. But his story is as compelling as any of the 71 mushers who started the 38th edition of the so-called Last Great Race on March 6. Marshall, 27, is aiming to become the first Jamaican or Caribbean national to complete the 1,049-mile race from Anchorage to Nome. He would be just the third black musher to do so. The trip to Nome, however, pales beside the twisting journey Marshall took just to reach the starting line.

Marshall’s Iditarod mission is the brainchild of wealthy armchair adventurer Danny Melville. Melville owns a tour company in Jamaica and has been the visionary behind the Jamaican Dogsled Team, which is backed by, among others, singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett of “Margaritaville” fame. Melville has set his sights on mimicking the success of the Jamaican bobsled team, which first competed in the 1988 Calgary Olympics and brought unheralded media attention to the tiny Caribbean island.

Last month, I traveled up to Lance Mackey’s Comeback Kennel outside Fairbanks, Alaska, to learn about Marshall’s story first-hand.

                                                           The Road Leading to Mackey's Comeback Kennel

Marshall spent the winter training with legendary musher and three-time defending Iditarod champ Mackey, who is currently leading the Iditarod with about a third of the race to go (Mackey is also a two-time ESPN/ESPY “Toughest Athlete” nominee.) During my two days, I was able to watch Mackey and Marshall interact, conduct interviews and develop a more in-depth picture of Marshall’s extraordinary voyage from the impoverished St. Anne Parish in Jamaica to Alaska, where he is poised to become the next Jamaican sporting hero. 

In the post that follows, I’ve created a multimedia platform with text, pictures and video that describes some of his story, including interview clips from Marshall, Mackey, and Mackey's wife, Tonya. You also can follow Marshall and Mackey’s progress at www.iditarod.com and learn more about the team at jamaicadogsled.spreadshirt.com.

Marshall comes from a hardscrabble background. He grew up poor and uneducated. In fact, he was illiterate until just a few years ago. He spent his youth living on a “compound” with four sisters and various cousins. His parents split when he was young and he was mostly raised by his grandmother.
 


With little education, Marshall bounced between odd jobs. He ultimately landed a gig as a gardener at Melville’s Chukka Cove company and graduated to working with the tour company's horses.

                                                  Marshall with one of Mackey's Numerous House Pets

Most pets in Jamaica are treated as disposable objects or, in the case of dogs, cheap alarm systems. Cruelty is widespread. Strays are everywhere. Yet Marshall found a way to express his gentle spirit through animals. He described to me how as a boy his first contact with pets was a stray cat that used to climb through a broken window in their house. It would enter and climb in bed with the four or five children sleeping together on one mattress. Marshall says it often snuggled up to his neck and kept him warm. He developed a sensibility for cats and later dogs, which helped when he began to work with the horses at Chukka Cove.



I’ve heard some people call him a “dog whisperer.” Mackey’s wife, Tonya, noticed his special affinity to animals, too.


Marshall’s skills didn’t go unnoticed at Chukka Cove. Soon, he was taking care of the tour company’s assortment of rescued mutts, used for dry-land sled dog tours. The team’s motley crew of mixed breed dogs were found on the street or collected through animal prevention to cruelty programs. Even so, at first Marshall had trouble imagining what the sport was, much less that dogs were able to pull humans.



Before long, he was being groomed for Melville’s grand vision – running a sled dog team in the Iditarod. The first stop was a stint training on real snow in Minnesota. Marshall had no idea what cold was. He slipped on the ice. Others recall Marshall calling from Minnesota and wondering, ‘How come I need to pee so much?’ It never dawned on him that he wasn’t able to sweat as much when bundled up against the elements. And why should it when you’ve spent your life escaping heat rather than seeking it? Marshall told me what his first exposure to sub-zero temperatures were like, both in Minnesota and later in Yukon, Canada, where he trained last year.


There were other perks to working at Chukka Cove. Marshall’s family had so little money that they couldn’t afford books or clothes or lunch money to send him to school regularly. He never learned to read. He felt shame, but was determined to overcome it. At Chukka, he met a retired special education teacher from Michigan named Shelly Kennedy who spent winters in Jamaica and ran an ad hoc tutoring program on the company’s property. One day a shy kid with cherubic cheeks who looked far younger than his 18 years showed up. Marshall had heard about the American lady who could teach you to read. As soon as Kennedy gave him the green light, he couldn’t stay away from her classes. It wasn’t an easy trip – he had to walk, take buses, sometimes spend what little he had on a taxi or just hitch a ride. Sometimes he would show up at sunset as class was ending after finishing whatever job he was doing. Kennedy couldn’t let that kind of dedication go unrewarded. So she would stay in the dark with the kid holding a flashlight as they sounded out letters.  Soon Marshall was reading whole words, then sentences. He now reads at a fourth or fifth-grade level and it has helped open his world and give him confidence.


When Marshall came back from his first trip off the island to Minnesota – his first trip anywhere – Kennedy noticed he wasn’t as dedicated in class. He seemed a tad full of himself. With so little of the world at his disposal, the kid was already immature for his age. It was a dangerous mix, hubris and childishness, and it contributed to what happened next. No one knows for sure why he did it, not even Marshall himself.

One evening when the Kennedy’s were back in Michigan, Marshall took the keys to a car on the property and went joy riding with a buddy through town. That was bad enough. But the kid could barely drive and didn’t have a license. He ended up ramming the car into a ditch, totaling the front to the tune of $8,000 in damage. No one was hurt, but he was do terrified that he told the Kennedy’s that he and his friend had been hijacked by armed robbers and forced to drive. 

The lie quickly unraveled. Everyone around him – Melville, the Kennedys, other workers at Chukka Cover – was dismayed and disappointed. Marshall, who by then was living on the Kennedy’s property, was dismissed from their home and indefinitey suspended from Chukka Cove. Shelly Kennedy was upset but didn’t go ballistic. She had seen kids fall off and come back from her special ed days back in Michigan. Wasn’t it reminiscent of any number of teenagers doing something stupid? She wanted it to become a lesson so that Marshall could learn to be a better person.

Still, Marshall was despondent. He took a long walk along the coast and his friends and family thought intended to throw himself into the sea. He cried all the time, lost weight and barely functioned.


It was even worse when Marshall turned himself into the police after admitting his guilt for the accident. He got so emotional that the cops felt sorry for him and let him go.


He remained on the outside looking in. The job of training for the Jamaican Sleddog Team’s first big race – the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest – was given to another Chukka Cove worker. It stung. But over the next few weeks and months a contrite Marshall found the courage to call the Kennedy’s and apologize. He did the same to Melville and others at Chukka Cove, but all was not forgiven so easily. When the Kennedy’s returned in the fall, Marshall again apologized face-to-face and asked Kennedy if he could come back to class. Since she taught on Chukka Cove property, she wasn’t sure Melville would agree. He agreed that Marshall had learned his lesson and could continue, but there were conditions. Class was no longer free. Kennedy told Marshall he had to pay the storage fee for the damaged car, which amounted to about $5 per class.

A humbled Marshall became a dedicated student. He never missed class. He studied whenever possible. He also got back into the good graces of Melville. When Marshall’s replacement to run last year’s Yukon Quest had second thoughts and pulled out, Marshall got a second chance. He spent the winter training with Hans Gatt (who won a fourth Yukon title last month) and last year completed the grueling race from Yukon to Fairbanks, finishing a respectable 13th out of 29 mushers and winning the coveted Challenge of the North Award for best exemplifying the spirit of the Yukon Quest. It was a tough journey, not only because of uncompromising taskmaster Gatt but also due to the harsh conditions. Pushed to his limits, Marshall recalls experiencing hallucinations induced by the constant darkness and sleep deprivation during the Quest.


The Yukon Quest was only a warm-up act. Melville had bigger plans. So this year he sent Marshall up to Fairbanks to live and train with Mackey, the legendary musher, cancer survivor and all-around tough guy, to prepare for the much more competitive Iditarod. As Mackey explains, the Yukon Quest and Iditarod are roughly the same distance but two different animals. Before they left, he was confident Marshall would be able to finish.


During Marshall’s three months with Mackey, there were cultural differences to overcome. Mackey’s wife, Tonya, marveled at Marshall’s excitement when they gave him his first iPod. He was fascinated with the video game Wii (golf and bowling are his favorites). He struggled at times to manage basic tasks like ordering food at a restaurant. There were tough moments, and sometimes Mackey lost his temper.


Tonya often played peacemaker and eventually became a surrogate mother to Marshall, helping to ease the tension between demanding mentor and fraught mentee.


Even with his experience last year on the Yukon Quest, Marshall had much to learn. At 40, Mackey is also learning, because what you can pick up over the course of a day or a week or a winter takes a lifetime to master. Mackey’s mantra is patience. “It’s never the dogs’ fault,” he says. The musher always has final responsibility.



                                           Mackey Instructs Marshall Outside his Home in Fairbanks

Despite lives worlds apart, the two mushers bonded. Like Mackey, Newton is a survivor just to have emerged from his small parish of St. Anne. Both have humble beginnings and checkered pasts. Mackey had a wild youth, battled drugs and throat cancer before becoming the most dominant musher in the sport’s history. Marshall could not read and was headed for a life of menial jobs and nearly sabotaged his big chance with his wanton joy-ride that got him thrown off the Jamaican Dogsled Team.


The paralles created a bridge between them, even if they didn't discuss it at length. In a sense, both grew up leading lives like dogs on a musher's gangline – defined only by limits. It’s why Mackey recognizes that if Marshall can finish the Iditarod, it could change his life.


Marshall’s time with Mackey and his family wasn’t all frigid temperatures and scooping dog poop and learning the ropes of mushing. There was fun, too. 


Marshall was able to pal around with Mackey’s stepson, Cain Carter, and the two other handlers who help keep Mackey’s Comeback Kennel and its roughly 75 dogs humming. They went sledding together, traded musical tastes on their iPods and sometimes took turns showing off dancing moves. In this clip, Marshall dances at the small shack he shared with another handler on Mackey’s property.




                                                   The Toughest Job in Mushing: Picking up Poop

Some will probably call Mackey a mercenary and publicity seeker for agreeing to train Marshall. Like most things, he sees if differently. With the sport buffeted by financial woes this year, the sport needs all the help it can get.


Despite being 4,000 miles away from home, Marshall isn’t afraid to draw on his own traditions to help him reach his goal. That includes singing reggae and other Jamaican tunes to himself and his dogs on long runs, like this one here, which is one of his favorites.


Marshall told me that he cannot fail. He said that he feels the weight of his country on his shoulders as the most famous winter athlete from Jamaica since the bobsled team competed at the Olympics. He also feels great personal responsibility to Melville, his benefactor and employer. I asked Marshall, who dreams of making enough money in the Iditarod to buy a small home of his own in Jamaica, what compelled someone from the tropics to try to achieve something many who have grown up in cold climes and raced dogs never have. 


Marshall, wearing bib No. 14, is currently in 49th place out of the remaining 58 mushers heading to Nome. He is more than half-way through the race and has dropped just two of his 16 dogs.


                                                                         Marshall's Race Suit


                                                    Standing on Mackey's Deck overlooking his Kennel

 

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Comments

  • 3/14/2010 9:05 PM Michelle Hibbert wrote:
    Doug, great interview! Newton's acension from the ashes to where he is now, is truly an inspiration. As a fellow Jamaican, I could not be more proud. Thanks Lance Mackey for dedication and to Danny for being a visionary. Waiting for you in Nome Newt!
    Reply to this
  • 3/16/2010 2:44 AM Marguerite Orane wrote:
    Thanks for this excellent and comprehensive post. It really paints a full picture of Newton and what he has gone through.

    I am amazed at what Newton is doing - but more than that, what is inside him - his spirit, his winning attitude. It is true - "there is nothing so powerful as the human spirit on fire" - I think I got that from Tony Robbins. Newton is a true hero and inspiration. He is showing young Jamaican men in particular, that there are no limits to what you can achieve. Indeed, he is showing this to the world.

    Thanks for telling his story - the ups and the downs. So often we see these things and don't realise what it took to get to this point.
    Reply to this
  • 3/31/2010 7:23 PM Andy Cunningham wrote:
    Newton is such an inspiration. I'm truly proud not only that he is Jamaican, but that he has taken up a challenge that not many will ever think of doing. To endure extreme cold day and night is truly a dedication. I really admire Newton (and the people that work with him). I equally admire and appreciate his sponsors, trainers and friends/supporters. Danny Melville, hats off to you, Sir! You are all in a special league -- continue the great work. Keep me connected and I'll give my support in ways I can.

    Newton has a remarkable spirit that the world have truly fallen in love with him. I am sure within a few short years from now, with dedication we'll see him at the top of the pack at the Iditarod - that will be quite a news event.

    Some have been concerned the dogs (with all the teams) are being abused. Glad Newton expressed his love for animals and put those people's fear to rest, hopefully!

    My note of encouragement team, stay focused and ignore the detractors. Thanks for entertaining us over this most momentous race. And Newton, hope you get back home to Jamaica for the summer and soak up all the SUN that you can. Don't forget to have fun at the beach too!!!
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