KENAI - At this time of year when temperatures fluctuate just a few degrees on either side of freezing, many find the wintry mix that results a time to stay in doors. But not all.
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Cold and rain mean it's time to train for dog mushers, particularly those who intend to compete in some of the early season races in the Interior, the Kenai Peninsula's Tustumena 200 in January, or ultramarathons like the Iditarod or Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race later in the year.
Anyone who is serious about completing one of these races has to begin early in order to have their dog teams in shape enough to do so.
"I started back in September. I'm training all adults - 31 dogs. It's basically the same team as last year," said Paul Gebhardt, of Kasilof.
Gebhardt, an annual Iditarod competitor who has placed in the top 10 five times since his first race in 1996, led last year's race for several days, but finished third overall.
He said he is hoping to improve his overall standing in the Last Great Race by two places this season, and the way to do that is to start early.
"I don't do any off-season training and they lose their muscle during that time," said Gebhardt, who during the warmer months focuses on his construction business, driving nails instead of dogs.
"So if I'm going to have 1,800 to 2,500 miles on them by Iditarod, I have to start in September," he said.
Gebhardt said he also starts early because he believes in building the dogs up slowly.
"It's like football, you don't have players start their season with a scrimmage on the first day. You have to build the dogs up slowly, so they can build muscles and get stronger, but you build slowly so they can build muscles around their joints, too," he said.
Gebhardt said building up a dog's joints, in addition to their hearts and lungs, is an important aspect to preventing injuries.
To accomplish this goal, Gebhardt starts out the training season by having the dogs pull him on a four wheeler on trails around his neighborhood.
"We'll start out doing just a mile or two, and I don't jump it up fast. I'll just add one or two miles a week," he said.
"Four wheeler training is about teaching them to pull. Training with the sled is about teaching them to go fast," he said.
With several weeks behind him and the dogs, having built the dogs up to run lengths in the high teens, and with temperatures continuing to fall, switching to the sled may come soon for Gebhardt.
"We'll have to wait and see what the weather will do, but some snow would be nice," he said.
If the snow doesn't come, like last season when ice and rain prevailed through December, Gebhardt said he may resort to training his dogs on the beach, or trucking them up to snow in the Glennallen or Cantwell areas.
Bill Hanes, another musher from Kasilof, also describes this time of year as "limbo," since weather can hold up training.
Hanes - a commercial fisherman, log scribber and self described odd-jobber in the summer season - has twice run the Iditarod, and last season made the jump into the prestigious top 20. But he said he likely won't returning to the race this season, opting instead to take a team of dogs from Whitehorse to Fairbanks in the Yukon Quest.
"I wanted to place in the top 20 in Iditarod and I accomplished that and am happy, so I'm playing with the idea of the Quest for some different scenery and terrain," he said.
Hanes said the Quest will also work well with the small size of his kennel.
"I'm only training 16 adults and the Quest only requires up to 14 dogs to start, instead of 16 dogs like the Iditarod," he said.
Hanes said this gives him a little more leeway in case any of his 16 dogs get sick or injured in training leading up to the race, but even with two alternates to fall back on, he said he would still be very cautious this season.
"If I do sign up for the Quest, that'll be it for the year. I won't do any other races and risk injuring a dog because if I loose even one big dog, I know it'll hurt me on Rosebud," he said, referring to the 3,480-foot mountain that makes or breaks a lot of teams running the Quest.
As to where he'll train if snow doesn't come soon, he said he doubts he'll drive much to find snow.
"I'll just grind it out here," he said.
While Gebhardt and Hanes are focusing on races further away in time, Kasilof musher Jason Mackey - a past Iditarod competitor - doesn't have that luxury.
Mackey is signed up for the Sheep Mountain 150, which takes place Dec. 15 in Sutton. He is training 41 dogs for the event, roughly half of which are his own, while the other half belong to another musher as part of an entrepreneurial endeavor to train dogs for those who have employment commitments that conflict with dog training.
"It can be challenging doing three 50-miles runs, which is how that race is split up, that early in the season, especially with the weather we're having right now," he said.
The last two years Mackey competed in the race he placed 10th and fourth, respectively. He said he would like to move up in the standings again this year, but to do that something will need to change since the current trail conditions are a catch-22.
He has to continue to train to have the dogs physically conditioned enough to run up and down the rugged mountains in the race, but with so little snow on the ground, running the dogs right now can do more harm than good, he said.
"The frost on the ground is so abrasive on their feet they have to wear booties, but within five miles they're wearing out booties that should last 100 miles," he said.
"You can't hold your breath forever, though. If you're going to be competitive you've got to do whatever it takes and go wherever you have to go. I can't really afford to truck the dogs north, but I can't afford not to, either, so I may head to Cantwell if the weather doesn't change soon," he said.
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