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FAIRBANKS - Ramy Brooks has been counting every second as he tries to take the final step into the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race winner's circle. Brooks has long been a spectacle at the checkpoints of long-distance races as he maniacally but methodically beds down his dogs, tends to their injuries and prepares a meal.
His belief in efficiency has carried him to a Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race title and three top-five finishes in the Iditarod since 1999.
The Healy musher spent the winter working on his routine, refining the way he and his dogs interact. He hopes that those precious seconds can translate into a long-dreamed-of Iditarod championship, something he's just missed as runner-up the last two years.
"One of the things I think I need is to do a little bit better to move up that one last position," Brooks said. "Hopefully, I can get them to the point where they were last year."
One area that Brooks has concentrated on this year as he prepares for the 10 a.m. ceremonial start Saturday in Anchorage is putting booties on the dogs.
The time-consuming chore might be the one drawback in mushing. Each dog requires four booties. Mushers spend up to a half hour or more bent over, fitting a canine paw into a bootie and strapping a Velcro band tightly in place.
You can't just slap on booties. If done improperly, a bootie will fly off while the team is moving, at a cost of 80 cents to $1 each. Brooks has gotten the routine down to about 13 minutes for a team of 16 - less than a minute a dog.
He applies the same effort and focus to every aspect of his checkpoint routine. For instance, he can bed the dogs down on straw, give them a snack, remove all their booties and coats and put water on to boil less than 10 minutes after setting the snowhook. He'll even set up a fake food drop bag to practice with on occasion.
"I go over the routine in my head," Brooks said. "I know that the efficiency I have in the checkpoint helps get me more sleep and it gives the dogs more undisturbed rest. It comes down to practice, knowing that routine through and through, so I don't have to think about what's next."
Since earning rookie of the year honors in 1994, Brooks has been on an upward climb in the Iditarod ranks. After a difficult run in the 1998 Iditarod, Brooks left for the Quest in 1999 and won that race on his second try. He returned to the Iditarod in 2000, finishing fourth, 12th, second and second.
He sees only one difference between this year's team and last year's.
"I think I have a dog team that's similar to last year's, maybe a little faster," Brooks said. "It's hard to say. I'm not going to be overconfident. I hope to be peaking right at the Iditarod."
For more information about the race, look on the Web at www.iditarod.com.