Lessons learned in second Iditarod for Kelly Maixner

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Kelly Maixner finished the 2012 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 11 days and one hour. His time was five hours slower than last year, his rookie effort in what many consider to be the last great race on Earth.

It may be a bit of an unfair comparison, however — this year’s race, the 40th, was along the northern route — 975 miles compared to last year’s 1,131 miles along the southern route.

The Golva native and pediatric dentist now living in Big Lake, Alaska, said conditions in the two races were vastly different.

North Dakota native Kelly Maixner

Last year was fairly mild by Alaskan winter standards, he said. This year, temperatures along the trail’s interior hit 40-50 below zero at times and along the coastal part of the route — roughly 165 miles — there were 45 mph head winds and ground blizzards that limited visibility to less than 10 feet at times.

“Some of the old-timers said it was some of the toughest weather they could remember,” Maixner said.

The weather and the conditions took their toll on him, his team and his equipment, he said.

On the second night of the race, on an area of the trail known as the Gorge, Maixner broke his sled. It’s an area full of sharp turns through the trees every 20 yards and 5-foot vertical drops.

Maixner said he was about 40 sleds back and by the time his team reached the Gorge, the trail had deep ruts that tossed him and sled around like a rag doll.

“I broke the handlebar on the sled and the snow hook … I didn’t think that was possible,” he said.

A snow hook is basically two large chunks of steel shaped like fish hooks that mushers can hook onto trees or in the snow or ice as an anchor to keep the sled in one place.

Maixner said, he crushed a finger in the process. “The feeling is just starting to come back now,” he said.

Maixner finished 30th last year and his goal was to crack the top 20 this year. He said he lost time piecing together his sled along the trail and during stops at checkpoints, but he rallied at the end of the race to move up more than 10 places and finish in 32nd.

By the end of the race he was within eight hours of the next 17 teams, he said.

The busted sled was a big issue and forced him to take his mandatory 24-hour rest stop in Nikolai, just 263 miles from the starting line, Maixner said.

The dogs were feeling it, too, by then, he said. “I thought I had six healthy dogs at that point,” he said.

“I finished the race with 11 dogs, but at that point I thought about going the rest of the way with nine.”

The long rest and some TLC were the ticket — something he figured out during the final days of the race, he said.

Mushers must drop at least 60 pounds of food and supplies at each checkpoint along the trail, sometimes more depending on the race strategy of each musher.

Full teams start with 16 dogs.

At each checkpoint, veterinarians are on stand-by to check on the dogs. Maixner said if dogs get injured or just tire on the trail, he puts them in the sled and drops them off at the next checkpoint.

From there, they are flown back to the starting point of Anchorage, and Maixner’s sister-in-law gets them back to the kennel, usually within a day or two, he said.

Only about a quarter into the race, Maixner said, he made the decision not to race anymore, maybe even withdraw.

As corny as it sounds, he said, he thought about his family and friends and even people back in North Dakota he has never met pulling for him to do well.

“It motivated me to finish,” he said.

Going with longer rest stops and longer runs after that, Maixner said, he figured out his dogs didn’t really get warmed up until two hours of running.

“Then they didn’t want to stop,” he said.

That strategy will figure into next year’s Iditarod, he said. Still a young team, Maixner’s Mad Stork Kennel dogs averaged about 2½ years old, still a couple of years from the prime.

Maixner is hoping that will help him stay ahead of the pack next year, ahead of pitfalls he found at the Gorge.

But in sled dog racing, anything can happen — and usually does.

“In the first two races, I think we’ve gotten a taste of everything the trail has to offer, ” Maixner said.

Source: BismarckTribune.com

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