No offseason for musher
Routt County resident Tom Thurston gives a tour of his home training ground as he prepares for the 2010 Iditarod.
In 180 days, South Routt County resident Tom Thurston will be buttoning up his jacket, battening down his sled and putting dozens of booties on his closest co-workers.
After completing his first Iditarod sled dog race across Alaska's tundra in March, Thurston has decided to re-up. He's paid the $4,000 entrance fee for the 2010 Iditarod and is learning from fellow mushers as he prepares to make another 1,150-mile journey across the snow and ice.
Thurston finished his first Iditarod in 4 days, 3 hours, 36 minutes and 22 seconds, in 44th place out of 52 finishers. With a lot of training, four new dogs and a tweaked training regimen, Thurston said he hopes to finish in the top 30 in 2010. In 2011, he said, he's gunning for a top-10 finish.
To achieve that goal, Thurston wakes up early each morning at his home in the Oak Creek Canyon to a chorus of dogs barking. The dogs, eager to see Thurston and even more eager to run, jump in circles as he walks through the pack, selecting which half of his team will pull his ATV that day.
Thurston is training 32 dogs and owns more dogs that stay at his friend's Grizzle-T Dog and Sled Works kennel. For the early part of the season, Thurston is running the dogs for one day, with two days of rest. Later in the year, closer to the big race, the dogs will be running two days with one day of rest.
Thurston selects the 15 or so dogs that he wants to run and steers the bouncing, eager bundles of energy toward their spot in the sled line.
The Alaskan Huskies are from a very "tight line" of breeding, with only a few quality racing grandparents, Thurston said. But more importantly, Thurston's dogs are personable.
"The typical sled dog is aloof and shies away from people," Thurston said. "I don't like those dogs. I like the dogs that will lick your face and is happy to see you."
He has even sold some high-quality, athletic dogs because they did not have the temperament to fit in with his team, Thurston said.
As a result, Thurston gets dozens of face licks as he leans in to fasten each dog onto the line, and in return, each of his dogs gets a nuzzle or a scratch behind the ears.
When the dogs are all set, Thurston climbs on the ATV, pops it into second gear, and the dogs drag him away. Sitting next to him is Evan Brill-Kowles, an apprentice and kennel helper from Vermont who signed on to work at Thurston's kennel.
Down the hill next to Thurston's Oak Creek Canyon home and across the road, the dogs pull the ATV until, at the top of a county road hill, the dogs pause for a gulp of water.
Thurston said he has learned all of his training techniques on his own, after years of taking the dogs camping and through trial-and-error as he trained for his first dogsled races.
During a recent trip to Alaska, where Thurston bought four new dogs, he also visited eight kennels and learned the training techniques of veteran mushers.
"I don't have a mentor or anything," Thurston said. "But I found I do things pretty similar to those folks."
Pep talks and protein
He said he will be making some small changes in his schedule this year, including changing the eating times for his dogs to encourage faster meal times on the course.
"I've always been a stickler for consistency," he said, in order to build a closer bond with the dogs. But he found that other mushers change the mealtime for the dogs each day, sometimes feeding them one big meal per day and sometimes several smaller meals. That way the dogs will learn to eat whatever food is put in front of them, a trait that is helpful while racing so the dogs get all the energy they can at each stop.
To start the training season, each dog is eating a pound and a half of kibble for vitamins and nutrients and a pound of beef for protein. That will increase as the weather gets colder and the trainings become more intense, Thurston said.
After getting a gulp of water, the team is off again, down the road back to Thurston's house. After a run up the steep hillside to finish the 5-mile workout, the dogs lie down, as part of their training is to rest when possible.
The lead dogs pulled hard and fast, but in the next training session they will be moved to the back of the pack as the dogs are rotated forward - part of Thurston's strategy of having many lead dogs. He likes his dogs to be bigger - about 60 pounds compared to the average 45 to 50 pounds - in order to have a strong team with a "higher bottom end" speed even when they're tired.
Thurston checks each of their paws for wear or burrs, earning more affection along the way.
Thurston gives his dogs pep talks throughout the workout, reassuring the younger dogs and reinforcing the leaders.
"You have to encourage them, set them up for success," he said. "Tell them they can do it because they can."
After 179 more training days, the dogs will have their chance.