GETTING TO KNOW SEBASTIAN SCHNUELLE ONE DOG AT A TIME

The only ones who really understand me are my dogs,said Sebastian Schnuelle, the 38-year-old German-born Canadian who took the distance-mushing scene by storm this past racing season.Schnuelle, known for his no-nonsense dog-driving abilities but perhaps best recognized by his wild hair, won the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race in February and followed that up with a second-place finish in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in March.Schnuelle never intended to win the Quest this year. Sure, he knew his team was solid, but like any successful musher knows, when the rare opportunity to strike, risky as it may be, presents itself, you must seize the moment or spend years regretting it.And in Iditarod, he made a choice to forge through a nasty storm on the coast which helped stave off teams behind him and give him the chance to strike for silver, second to Lance Mackey, the three-time champion.Schnuelle, who owns and operates Blue Kennels outside Whitehorse, Yukon, has about 40 race dogs in his yard in addition to plenty of tour-quality dogs for excursions with guests who visit each year from all around the globe.He doesn’t do much of his own breeding, he said, because he doesn’t really know what he’s doing when it comes to that.Schnuelle got started in dogs around 1997 with huskies from Arthur Beck and Sam Perino out of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. He also got a couple of pups from Larry ‘Cowboy’ Smith out of Dawson City, Yukon. One of those young mutts was Tang, a beloved leader that has finished the majority of races that Schnuelle has done, but we’ll get back to her later.Schnuelle attempted his first Quest in 1999, but he admitted, he was very inexperienced and scratched partway through the race. He took a five-year hiatus to learn all he could and returned to the 1,000-mile race across the Yukon and Alaska in 2004. He finished 10th that year and, he said, was completely addicted.Since 2005, he has run the Quest and the Iditarod back to back, not to mention a variety of 200- and 300-mile contests. But 2009 will go down as his best yet and he attributes that to consistent year-round training and a schedule of long, slow runs with shorter rests. “I never stop training,” he said, adding that his training has evolved and changed over the years but for now he’s sticking with what works for him. His dogs work in harness all summer at a glacier tour operation in Juneau and when they are home in the offseason they get turned loose in a giant exercise pen to stretch out, play and socialize. He even admitted to letting most of his dogs (not all at once, of course) in the house. Even when he’s clacking away on his computer, his dogs are nestled up beside him. It’s all part of raising and training dogs who work hard, get along and work together.And if you think his dogs get soft spending time on the couch, they don’t, he assured.“I just like being around them and so I make sure I have as much time as I can with them,” he said. “They absolutely do not get soft and if they do, I make sure my training makes them hard.“Each year I’ve tighten down the screws a bit more. I like to train dogs, but consciously this year, I upped the ante in training.”He upped the ante not by going faster but by going slower and longer. By the time the Quest came around he had 3,800 training miles on his dogs.“I definitely wouldn’t call it standard training,” he said, noting that all of his Iditarod dogs ran the Quest with either him or Mark Sleightholme. “I went slower this year than I ever have before.”And he still set the Yukon Quest’s record finishing in nine days, 23 hours and 20 minutes.“I drove the fastest Quest time ever with one of the slowest teams in the race,” he laughed.Schnuelle trained at around seven or eight miles an hour and competed in his races the same way, doing long seven- to nine-hour runs. He rarely stopped at a checkpoint in the Quest or Iditarod but instead chose to camp out on the trail where the dogs could get quality rest and he could remain undistracted.“My philosophy is that I want the dogs to see in training what they’re going to see in the race. I simulate the race situation and then I have the confidence in them that they’ll do what I expect them to do in a race,” he explained. “Last year, people were laughing at me with all the long miles I was doing.”His team left the Iditarod re-start in Willow this year, motivated and focused albeit slow. The first rival team hollered ‘Trail!’ before his team was even a mile into the race, he said. But he knew he’d see them again. A slow team is a less-stressed, less-injured team, he added.And as for high tech gear and gadgets, Schnuelle said he likes to keep it simple. Good quality equipment and a well-trained team are the most important components to his winning ways.“Mushers need to find what works for them. I wear the same old Canada Goose parka I’ve had for 10 years, Helly Hansen pants, a Gatt sled, the same old round cooker … there’s nothing special about it, but it works for me.”He’s also tried all the harness-gangline combinations; the Mitch Seavey setup, the Jeff King style, Bjorkis half-harnesses, short tugs etc. but he has always gone back to the standard straight gangline with Taiga H-backs and necklines.And like his gear, his feeding rituals have remained relatively simple: a good quality commercial dry food (First Mate Extreme 38-25 made by Taplow) along with quality meat, fish oil, canola oil, psyllium, a supplement called Revive made by 10-Squared Racing and Ophir Gold foot pills. He feeds at all hours of the day and night to simulate the irregular feeding schedule of a race.Since he gets a lot of his dogs as yearlings or adults from buying out other kennels, he gives them two years to make the race team before they get ranked as tour dogs. If he can get 80 percent out of a dog in the first year of ownership, he knows that dog has potential, but it takes running with the team and having those positive and negative experiences to see what a dog is really made of.“I have a lot to do and get stressed so I might not go into the dog yard because I don’t want to influence them. They watch and gauge us, every movement we do.“As long as they have a good build and have been brought up decent, it doesn’t matter if it’s a Seavey or King or Mackey bloodline. I still have one dog in my team from the pound,” he said. “A dog is a dog, but there are limits to that. I couldn’t go to the pound and assemble a winning Quest team out of that.”One special dog that he raised from puppyhood was Tang, the female from Cowboy Smith.For years, Tang was Schnuelle’s main leader but when she finally retired from racing at 12-years old this season, Schnuelle wasn’t worried. In fact, he was relieved, he said.Having one main leader in his team each race was getting to be a little stressful. What if he had to drop her due to injury or fatigue? Which dog could he trust like he trusted Tang?Well, this year, he had a whole group of leaders and learned not to rely on just one.“I try not to focus on one dog anymore, but treat them all equal instead.”And having different leaders for different situations – i.e. the wind on the coast during Iditarod or 50 below on Birch Creek in the Quest – is obviously beneficial and helped Schnuelle out of a couple of jams this season.Leading up to his 1,000-milers, Schnuelle competed in several mid-distance races including the GinGin 200 and the Copper Basin 300.“A lot of them, I don’t find very beneficial for what I want to do (long, slow marches). I will probably continue to show up but I’ll be going a lot slower so don’t always look at my placing. It’s about whatever the team needs.”When it came time for the Quest start in Whitehorse, Schnuelle’s focus wasn’t on winning or even placing high, he said. He simply wanted he and Sleightholme to finish with as many healthy dogs as possible so he could focus on Iditarod.“Right before the race, I told myself I was just going on a long camping trip,” Schnuelle said.And for the three-quarters of the race he did just that, spending little time in checkpoints and sticking to his slow and steady regime he had been training for. And because of his schedule, he said, he was pretty oblivious to what was going on in the race around him. By the time the race reached Central, about 800-miles in, Schnuelle was convinced that the top pack of drivers were long gone and so he settled in at the Central checkpoint for a six-and-a-half hour break before attempting the 3,000-foot Eagle Summit. He didn’t want to push the dogs over the challenging and steep section of trail between Central and the last checkpoint at Twin Bears because he wanted them to have lots of fuel in the tank for Iditarod, but soon after leaving Central and starting the ascent up Eagle Summit, he noticed something ahead in the distance.Schnuelle’s team charged up the steep side of Eagle Summit, barking all the way, he said. Others ahead of him weren’t so fortunate.Leaving Central, he met fellow German-Canadian musher William Kleedehn, who had set the fast pace on the race until that point. Kleedehn was returning to Central to consider dropping a dog but Schnuelle convinced him to just follow him up the mountain. They made it nearly to the top before spotting Whitehorse’s Hugh Neff and Kasilof’s Jon Little ahead. Schnuelle knew then that the race was on – he had caught the leaders.Schnuelle was going to stop and take a short rest at the Mile 101 dog drop between Eagle and Rosebud Summits, but soon realized that “this was a once in a lifetime chance and I had better go for it,” he said.On Rosebud, Schnuelle passed Little who told him that the race’s leader, Neff, had received a two-hour time penalty for taking the wrong trail earlier in the race.“That’s when I started working more than I’m known for; running up Rosebud Summit,” Schnuelle said. “If I had known about Hugh’s penalty, I wouldn’t have stayed as long in Central, but at that point, I thought everybody was long gone.”Schnuelle won the Quest by just four minutes with Neff hot on his heels. He pushed 16 hours from Central to the Twin Bears checkpoint, a long run that he had hoped to save for Iditarod, but a moved that launched him into first and helped him achieve a record time.After winning, Schnuelle said he was so busy getting ready for Iditarod and recovering from the Quest, that he didn’t notice much excitement for his victory. It only dawned on him that he had actually won until the season was almost over, he said.And before he could bask in the glow of his first Quest win, Schnuelle had to focus on Iditarod. He knew in this 1000-mile affair, a come-from-behind victory was not going to work. From the first day on the race, Schnuelle knew he had a top 10 team and it was up to him to stay on a his schedule, be diligent at his rest stops and also remain flexible enough to veer from his plan if opportunity calls.He was able to stay to his long, slow run, short-rest schedule until Kaltag, about three-quarters of the way into the race to Nome.“Lance is more spur-of-the-moment but I knew that wouldn’t work well for me,” Schnuelle said of his schedule. “I can adapt (to changing situations) but I need some structure or else I get too soft and stay longer at my stops,” he said.“That team was the team I had always wanted to drive; hard pulling, not fast, but a beautiful team. They were motivated, eating like alligators and were having fun.” By the time Schnuelle reached the coast, his team was still running strong but a nasty storm was plaguing other mushers and many had decided to wait at the Shaktoolik checkpoint until the gale-force winds out on the sea ice subsided.But Schnuelle “was ignorant enough to go into that storm that halted the race,” he said.After waiting out the wind last year in Shaktoolik and dropping several places, his mind was made up to go through this year, no matter what. He didn’t even look at the weather, he said, but soon after leaving the coastal village that serves as a checkpoint, Schnuelle realized just how bad the wind was.Soon, his team was crawling at just four-miles-an-hour through the storm, but he made his way forward with no visibility and convinced himself that going back would be just as bad.He ran from Unalakleet, through Shaktoolik to Koyuk on the other side of Norton Sound, a march that took him 15 hours, but secured his place in the top three.He and Kotzebue’s John Baker made it to Koyuk, with Mackey already way out in front and pretty much guaranteed first place. Baker and Schnuelle waited at Koyuk, but the mushers hunkered down at Shaktoolik weren’t budging. Schnuelle rested there for 12 hours before pushing on to Elim. The wind was still blowing out of Koyuk, creating rock-hard drifts, but the team was well-rested and pushed through. At Elim, Schnuelle peaked at the standings and saw that pack of teams behind he and Baker still had not made it to Koyuk, so they took another rest there.“We were thankful for those long rests,” Schneulle said.Schnuelle arrived in Nome with Finn and Inuk in lead in second place and was greeted under the burled arch by his girlfriend, his friends and his family.His father and brother made the trek from Germany to watch their first dog sled race, Schnuelle said.“I got emotional because I don’t know when it’s ever going to happen like that again,” he said. “This was very special.”Jillian Rogers is a freelance writer who lives outside Homer, Alaska, with her 20 sled dogs. Contact her at rogersjillian@hotmail.com

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