Friday, October 24, 2008

Iditarod sled dogs train in Idaho

Overnight dog runs a must in cold weather

Express Staff Writer

Hoover (right), a seasoned Iditarod leader, trains up-and-comer Ayn (left) on a practice run out East Fork. Photo by Chris Seldon.

Well before the first snow falls, Triumph resident and Community School elementary teacher Trent Herbst is hard at work training 15 Alaskan huskies for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, a 1,150-mile journey across the Alaskan wilderness in March.

The dogs are 1- to 2-year-olds, belonging to Ed Stielstra of Michigan, an Iditarod competitor who finished 28th last year. Stielstra has enlisted Herbst to train his pups in hopes that in three to five years they will be top-notch sled dogs.

Training requires six months of non-stop care for the pups. Herbst, 38, with his wife, Candida, and 6-year-old daughter Kali, tend to the yearlings' daily feeding, grooming and training.

In fact, as soon as the weather turns cold, Herbst takes the dogs on nightly runs. When there is no snow on the ground, Herbst has his dogs pull him on a makeshift cart or his all-terrain vehicle. In the beginning, he spends most of the time teaching the dogs commands and pacing.

"All the dogs want to do is sprint," Herbst said. "We teach them to pace themselves. I am basically socializing the dogs so that they are forming a pack and socializing with each other."

Herbst is also constantly changing which dogs run together and which dogs will lead the pack.

"It is like a chess match," he said.

Come winter, Herbst will increase the distance, taking the dogs on 50- to 100-mile runs. By the time the race comes around in March, the dogs will have run nearly 2,000 miles.

"Sometimes I leave at 9 at night and come in at 5 in the morning and then I'll come and teach," Herbst said.

The dogs need lots of food, water and care. After each run they are checked for injuries and groomed. Before the race they are given the equivalent of an EKG to test their hearts to make sure they are fit enough for the adventure. All in all, the cost of caring for the dogs and entering the race can amount to as much as $30,000.

Herbst and his love for the Iditarod started in 2004 when he was teaching in Switzerland. He read Gary Paulsen's "Winterdance," an account of racing the Iditarod, and began to study the race with his students.

"We built sleds in class and studied the trail, and I just got hooked," Herbst said

He left his job, moved to Alaska and began to train for the Iditarod. He qualified in 2005 and ran his first race a year later.

Herbst admits that the Iditarod can be a treacherous race. The terrain is rough, the weather is harsh and the wind-chill can reach as low as minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit

"During the race you cannot wait until it's over and then you get to (the end) and you cannot wait to do it again," Herbst said. "For me, it is different because I am getting my thrill from training young dogs and making a pack. It is the same kind of thrill as teaching elementary school."

This March, Herbst will head to Alaska to compete again. His goal, however, will not be to finish in the top but rather to acquaint the dogs with the course.

"Right now I am a yearling trainer," Herbst said. "Maybe in the future I will compete competitively. It is just so expensive to have your own team. If the right living condition or sponsor came along I would go for it, but right now I am quite happy."

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