Dogs Are "True Heroes" of Iditarod, Race Champ Says

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You've won four Iditarods. Does the race ever become easier?

I think it might even get harder each year. The challengers are there every year in greater numbers, we see more hungry drivers.

What keeps you so committed, keeps you coming back to such a grueling event every year?

I think it's the pride in my dogs. We are the proud owners of dogs that we've bred and raised, and I'm proud to show them off. I love getting ready for the race—teaching them things, training and shaping the team. Of course, once you've put in all that effort you need to take it out on the race trail and compare your efforts with everybody else's.

What qualities help make a dog-sled driver successful in such a demanding race?

I joke that it's type A personalities who have learned to live with it. We've got to have a lot of drive, be competitive, and pay attention to detail. You've got to be into the dogs—into their heads—and pay attention to them mentally as much as you pay attention to them physically. Also, there are gear and equipment factors, so we try to lighten the load every way we can. Every ounce counts. I'll cut half of my toothbrush off to save some weight.

I try to make sure people understand that the race is in the headlines for a short time, but it really is a full-time, year-round commitment. It takes a tremendous number of hours.

During the Iditarod, you're out in very wild country for maybe nine or ten days and get no support from anyone except other drivers. That requires self-reliance, but is there also a special bond among the competitors?

We know each other really well and 99 percent of us get along. We're all competitive, but we're also way the hell out there and we know if we don't help each other out, we could be in a big jam. Sometimes we get in dangerous situations that can't be overcome by one person alone.

What kind of memorable jams have you experienced?

Well, we say close calls don't count—otherwise you'd always be counting. There are many. One standout was a big storm in 1991 when five of us went into the storm and only two came out the right end. Three others had to turn back, and even the locals in the area had never seen anybody conquer a storm like that. For literally 27 hours I walked step by step with my dogs, as the leader. In that storm I gained the confidence to win. It was such an intense experience that it resulted in my first win the next year. So when I talk about winning the Iditarod, I tell people winning has to be learned as well.

Lets talk about the dogs. What makes a champion sled dog?

There is an old cliché: "A 50-pound dog with a hundred-pound heart." That's really what it comes down to. The incredible drive that these canine athletes have is second to none. You might know a dog that will chase and return a stick all day, no matter how many times you throw it. They never get tired. Our dogs are devoted like that. Sometimes they can drive you nuts because they have so much energy, and they are driven. There isn't a registered breed for a great sled dog. We call them "thoroughbred mongrels."

The dogs really love to run, don't they? What are some of their favorite activities during training?

We train year round, and I enjoy the whole year. What the dogs really like is free running, and we do a lot of that. We take up to 24 of them at a time, and I drive them to a big hay field and airstrip. Then I just turn them loose and let them race up and down. I spend maybe an hour and a half with them. They absolutely love it and it's also part of the training. Not only the strength is important, so are team-building efforts. Learning to get along with each other's personalities and work as team is key.

We train all summer. As soon as it starts cooling off, we'll incorporate team training. That's hooking them up in harness and letting them pull the four wheelers a little bit. Once the snow hits the ground, we'll switch to the sleds. Our first race typically is in mid-December, a race called the Christmas classic.

How many years do your dogs race, and what do they do in their retirement?

In my team they retire when they hit double digits [in age]. To run on my team they can't be under two or over ten years old. I have about four retirement kennels, and a vast circle of people are clamoring for the animals. I give them to new homes and try to match the personalities of dogs and owners.

Some of them stay in the kennel, but these old-timers get a little more special care—a little more TLC as someone's pet, then as a part of a big kennel. As pets, they still get their exercise. You have to let them do what they really like to do.

Is there anything you think people should know about dog-sled racing that may not be obvious?

The emphasis of the sport should really be on the dogs and not the drivers. They go out and run 150 miles in 24 hours, sleep a few hours, and then they are ready to get up and do it again. They are the true heroes of the trail. The humans just get all the attention because they can talk.

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