Call of the Wild
Mushers train their dogs much like thoroughbred trainers with a stable of racehorses.
They have to train themselves for the race, too. The rules require mandatory rest stops and stops at checkpoints, and every musher must take certain items along – a special ax, food for himself, food for the dogs, a special heavy parka and sleeping bag, and boots for the dogs’ paws in case they hit sharp-edged ice or hard-packed snow.
“These guys are not wealthy athletes,” says Jim Keller. “By the time they finish, most mushers have nothing left in their checkbooks. The winner this year (Lance Mackey) won a new pickup truck, and that was the first new one he’s ever owned. Most racers have to work all year to pay for the thrill of being in the race. But they wouldn’t have it any other way. And they don’t want modern gadgets like cell phones or GPS or satellite communications, because if they race, and if they win, they want to know they won the same race the old-timers did, that they’re just as hard, just as tough, just as good.”
This is not a racecar format – mushers do have to run the same trail, but they can, within some parameters, choose how to run it. For example, they can choose, again within the regulations, which hours to run and which to rest. Dallas Seavey says mushers can start with 12-16 dogs, but most will leave some behind at checkpoints (attended to by volunteer veterinarians if they are tired or injured) and 8-10 is the ideal number for the finishing miles. Seavey began with 16 and finished with 14 as he worked to get them experience, leaving behind only a tired dog and one with a minor toe injury.