The best sportspeople in the world have a knack of making extraordinary endeavors appear easy. The Streepers, as dog trainers, have that ability.Underneath the seeming absence of effort, belies a hard work, and probably most importantly smart-work , approach to training sled dogs that the Streeper family has employed for many decades.Before the rae I interviewed Terry, “We went in to that race (Wyoming) with a whole different training philosophy – it worked 110% and we’ll see what it does for this race.” When asked to divulge some of that philosphy Terry laughed and said, “It took me 35 years to learn, and I want to perfect it first before I can pass it on.” When you really contemplate that depth of experience and knowledge it is amazing that anybody ever finishes in front of them. Further back from the top end of the time sheets, there are hard workers of course. Certainly anyone who can keep an open-class size kennel with all the work involved maintaining it year round and train the dogs up to race 3 days at almost 30 miles per day, isn’t lazy. So what is it that the Streepers are doing so correctly? For one, they don’t rest on their laurels. Always one to push the envelope and try new training methods, Terry and Blayne have also stepped out of their comfort zone to compete in many different disciplines in many different places across the continent. The experience of racing through the slush of a New England sprint race, or the drama and hysteria of head on passing in Quebec, to racing in the wide open tundra of northern Canada or the mountains of Wyoming, have given them a perspective and confidence that few, if any other teams can contemplate.Dominance in any sport can lead to frustration further back in the pack, but it can also be a motivator. Arleigh Reynolds seems to be motivated. Not exactly a newcomer to open-class racing, Arleigh moved up from the limited class in the early part of the decade. He’s had some success over the years, but never has he won any of the two major sprint races in Alaska: ONAC and Rondy. He has kept plugging away—steadily making his way closer to worrying the top teams. I remember hearing the same lineover and over from Arleigh as he accepted a 3rd or 4th place trophy at races. At a time when the teams of Ellis and Streeper were seemingly in a class of their own, minutes ahead each day from the other competitors, Arleigh would say something like, “You guys have set the bar pretty high, but we’re catching up and getting closer, we are right there knocking on the door.” I don’t know if many in the audiences believed those words, it’s not important. What is important is that Arleigh did. Despite the years of experience, the resources, and the dogs of the Streepers, after 3 days and almost 90 miles of sprint racing through the streets, over the bridges, under the tunnels, through the trails of Anchorage, Arleigh was just about a minute and a half behind in second place. On the last day, with a team down to ten dogs, he posted the second fastest time. After years of knocking on the door, it seems to have opened. Can he step through? I congratulated Arleigh after the race was over, and although he seemed happy and satisfied with his highest ever finish in the Rondy, I couldn’t help but notice just a hint of disappointment. His response of, “Thanks, next year Greg, next year, just wait until next year…” gave me the impression that he wasn’t just satisfied with second, he wanted and wants to win. Walking away I thought that as he lined up with 10 dogs in second place on the last day of the race he really believed there was still a chance to win. He believed in his core crew and their ability despite having to race against the strong team of 16 that was winning. You win by never losing faith in your team. You win by having a positive outlook both inside and outside of your kennel, by looking for opportunity, a slightly open door, and pushing it open. Mushers take note.Coming home in 3rd place was Jason Dunlap. Even newer to the sport than Arleigh, Jason ran a smart race with a team that is comprised of dog of his own and those of Joee Redington Jr. This combination seems to be working well for the pair. Joee is known for being an excellent dog breeder and trainer, and by teaming up with the youthful Jason, things seem to be clicking. Joee lives in Manley, Alaska, a place known for its cold temperatures and harsh conditions. The dogs he is breeding and training are the classic Alaskan Husky sprint lines of Drake-Leonard, Gareth Wright, and the Saundersons. They are noticeably less “houndy” than the dogs of Streeper and Reynolds. In talking with Joee he said, “They need to have a good coat. It is hard for me to keep the pointer crosses in the environment where I live, so I’ve gone back to breeding the old husky lines. That seems to be working better for me.” Jason said after the first day, sitting in 3rd place, “I just let the dogs run the best that they could run. I didn’t push them, didn’t do anything special. It was like a long training run. The trail was a little softer than expected but maybe that worked in our favor. We weren’t setting any land speed records, but it took a good tough dog team to do well.” Sitting in third position in the Rondy was a new experience for him, but the vibe of his calm and cool demeanor undoubtedly transmits to his dogs. When asked what his plan was to hang on to his position and run the next two days, he stated, “I don’t know, just take it as it comes. We’re in unchartered territory.” Although there were the usual dramas, personal victories, and let downs during this year’s Rondy, one result that was most perplexing was the scratch of 4-time champion Egil Ellis. After dominating this race from 1999 to 2005, he hasn’t been able to claim victory since, but this was an especially disappointing year. Prior to the start of Day 1, Egil was very optimistic. “I think this is probably the best team I’ve brought to this race within the last 5 years. They are all really happy and healthy and working as a team.” Sitting in an unusual 6th place after day 1, Egil’s 2nd day race was one he would likely want to forget. His team started out on track, running within the top few teams to about the 1-hour mark. Then during the all important last third of the heat, where it is won or lost, his team started an unusual slide backward. This happened to some degree during the first heat, but in a way never seen before from the champion, it happened again on Saturday. Citing concern for his dogs, and his being baffled by what was wrong, he scratched from the race. A showdown between the two power houses of sprint racing was not to be this year. Rounding out the top 4 was Iditarod champion Jeff King. Announcing his retirement from 1,000 mile long distance races this year, Jeff seems to be really enjoying the sport that he has built a lifestyle and career around. Earlier in the season, he organized the Denali Doubles race—an unusual event requiring two drivers per team. Being the first “big name” Iditarod musher to enter the Rondy in recent years, he wanted to do it right. He only had a few training runs with the Streeper “B” team that he leased for the race, and started out tentatively on the first day. By the last day, he was driving the team like a sprint racing pro, and took the 3rd fastest time on Day 3, moving him up to 4th place overall. I spoke with Jeff on Day 2 and asked him what it were the main differences between the modern Iditarod style team and the modern sprint team. “Well for one thing, I had a couple of stops out there and I was amazed at how intolerant these dogs were of stopping. They were calmer at the start of the race than they were out there. They know that this is not where we stop. Period. My dogs, they stand there calmly and wait for me to do my thing. I’ve been able to transfer my sled handling and driving ability to this. It is really the same sport, but different cadence.” I also asked him about the exchange of information between top level mushers from different disciplines within the sport, “Well I noticed that they are doing a lot of the same things I’m doing. They are putting their weakest dogs in the same spot in the team that I am. They are telling me things like, go out slow so you can come home hard. Well I’ve been doing that for a long time! One of biggest differences I’ve noticed is, for example, with my team I can tell the difference between 9.5 and 10 mph, with this team I can’t tell the difference between 17 and 20mph and obviously it’s critical.”It seems like I say this every year, “This was exciting, but wait until next year!” With more and more top teams now potentially able to compete for the top spots the Rondy just keeps getting better and better. In addition to the sled dog race, there are many things to do in town as Anchorage celebrates with its carnival-like atmosphere. If you haven’t been, I’d recommend coming to town and taking it all in. •For more coverage of the 2010 Open-Class World Championship Sled Dog Race, go to mushing.com. We have hours of video interviews where we talk with almost all the racers and ask them about their training and racing strategies as well as get their impressions of running the toughest and most competitive sprint sled dog race in the world. Greg Sellentin is the publisher of Mushing Magazine and an aspiring open-class sprint musher now residing in Willow, Alaska.
Lost Sports of the Winter Olympics: The fast and furry world of sled dog racing