Alaska’s long haul conquered
DRY PARK – The 40-plus dogs at Bill Pinkham’s place all know their names.
All Pinkham has to do is call out to one of them, “Baltic … Duke … Ida,” and that particular dog will turn, prick up his or her ears and look right at Pinkham with a knowing intensity that says, “I’m with you.”
It’s that kind of bonding that’s allowed Pinkham, 45, and his dogs to qualify for the Iditarod sled dog race for the past two years. Pinkham and 16 of his dogs returned last week from competing in the 31st annual Iditarod, which this year began March 6 in Anchorage, Alaska.
The Glenwood Springs-based team finished 1,100 miles later in Nome on March 18, 11 days, 40 minutes and 47 seconds after they started. This year’s winner – Mitch Seavey of Seward, Alaska – took 9-1/2 days to finish the race.
Pinkham has had his own successes. He placed 33rd out of 87 teams, shaving an impressive 40 hours off his 37th-place finish in 2003.
“I really learned a lot this year,” he said, leaning against a plastic dog shelter and scratching one of his Iditarod competitors, Sculpin, a 3-year-old female, behind the ears as she stretched her front paws on his chest. “My learning curve really helped me to improve. That race is a lot like life. You learn more with each experience.”
Pinkham thinks he has a team of dogs – he refers to them as “16 great athletes” – that can compete at the top-20 level next year. That means he will run the race a little different based on this year’s race.
Pinkham said he trains the dogs to run six to seven hours, and then take an equal-length break. However, in the midst of competition pressure added to a lack of sleep, Pinkham said, at this year’s race he ran the team sometimes at eight-hour intervals. That caused the dogs to pace themselves slower and to drop back.
“I think they figured, ‘If he’s going to run us longer, we have to run a little slower,'” he said.
‘A chess game’
He said the experience of running the race creates a connection between him and his dogs like no other. “We’re on the trail together, 24 hours a day,” he said. “We’re running, eating, sleeping.”
He’s happy with his finish, and happy to report a team of healthy dogs with no injuries incurred during the race. And he is already looking forward to taking a team up north for the 2005 Iditarod. So are the dogs, he said.
“They know they’re racing,” he said. “They get down to their core, just like any super athlete.”
From start to finish, competing in the Iditarod is a mammoth undertaking. A year’s worth of training goes into getting the dogs ready to compete.
All along the way, Pinkham said, he hits a balance, being sure to condition the dogs, but not too hard.
“You can look at it like a pro football team,” he said. “You want them to get into healthy, strong condition, but you don’t want to push them too hard, because that can lead to injury. It’s a chess game.”
After this year’s race, Pinkham loaded up his F350 diesel pickup truck, with its specially built dog kennel in the truck bed, and the team’s two racing sleds on top, and began the long trek back home.
“The dogs get really playful at that point,” he said. “They know the race is over.”
Sculpin gets especially goofy, Pinkham said. “Every time we stop and I open her kennel door to let her out, she just rolls on her back and hangs her head out her door.”
Another 300 miles
This year, Pinkham decided to add another 300 miles to his 7,100-mile, Colorado-Alaska round trip, by detouring to Portland, Ore. There, he visited a little girl who had selected him through the “Teacher on the Trail” education program.
“She picked me as the musher she would keep in touch with through the Iditarod,” Pinkham said.
The little girl, who suffered a rare disease as an infant resulting in both her arms and legs being amputated, was a treat to meet. “She’s amazing,” he said of their visit. “There’s nothing she can’t do.”
Pinkham said he got 67 letters from other children, too.
“I love the connection with kids that I make through this race,” Pinkham said.
That connection is inspiring Pinkham to race for hungry kids next year.
“You get a little delirious when you’re out there on the trail,” he said, “but I got to thinking about running the Iditarod for a particular cause, and it occurred to me to run for hungry kids. I’m not exactly sure what organization I’ll put my efforts towards yet, but I’m still thinking along those lines. If you’re hungry, you can’t pursue your dreams.”
Bill Pinkham took 16 of his dogs to Alaska to compete in this year’s Iditarod dog sled race. The seven females and nine males range in age from 3 to 6.
They are Minnie (who has a spot on her side that looks exactly like Minnie Mouse in silhouette), Rain, Squid, Melbourne, Titan, Nikoli, Arah, Pejui, Ida, Maverick, Liam, Pinks, Lucky, Baltic, Baboo and Sculpin.