INTERVIEW: HANS GATT

GS: It’s been a long time since we spoke to you for an interview, almost five years. I think the last time I interviewed you was for the second or third issue of Sled Dog Sports Magazine and a lot has changed since then. First of all you moved. You moved from Atlin to Whitehorse, am I correct?HG: Yes, that is correct. I moved from Atlin to Whitehorse. Atlin is one of the best places in the world to train a dog team but it was just very inconvenient to travel up and down the gravel roads so many times. Then I met Susie and moved up here to Whitehorse about 20 minutes outside of town. GS: Does that help your sled business, being in Whitehorse, being close to post offices to get parts moved in and out? HG: Yes, absolutely. It is just so much more convenient to get and send parts and sleds and it saves on gas money. GS: How are the training conditions in Whitehorse? You said they were great in Atlin. There are other mushers in Whitehorse too—Sebastian is not very far and Gerry Willomitzer is there too.HG: We pretty much train all together; however in Atlin I could run out of my yard 100 miles in all different directions. I had different trails there. Here basically I have a 20 mile-trail which we can run out the yard but then I have to truck the dogs. There are a lot of trails around here too but pretty much I have to load them up which sounds inconvenient but I think it helped my team actually—all this traveling and training so much on different trails. I think it was better. It’s a lot more work for me but I think it’s better for the dogs.GS: That’s interesting. Let’s start with your dogs. We know they are Alaskan Huskies. Are they descendants of the original dogs you brought over here from Europe? HG: Absolutely. They go back to my lines which I had in the early ‘90s when I was running sprint racing. However later on I got some dogs from Don Cousins which went back to Lester Earhart so there’s a lot of Lester Erhart blood in my dogs now. Over the years I mixed those lines and ended up with some incredible dogs. Pretty much my whole team is a couple of litters out of Felix and Tawana. About 5 years ago I bought some dogs from Norway—pretty much the same bloodline Robert Sorlie is running. I did an outcross there so I got really tough dogs out of that breeding. GS: Have you changed what you are looking for in a dog because of the style of racing that’s prevalent now in the Iditarod and the Quest?HG: No, the best dogs are still the best dogs. Years ago we could get away with some dogs which got burned out after 6 or 7 hours of running but those kind of dogs won’t make it any more. Right now we are going 10 hours, rest 3 and then going another 10. You need incredibly tough dogs that have a lot of attitude. My team this year just never seemed to get worn out. It didn’t matter whether I pulled the snow hook after 2 hours or after 5 hours. They just got up and went. That is unbelievable. It has changed a lot. GS: Are you selecting for those types of dogs or do you think your training has allowed those same dogs to do that?HG: I think even more than the breeding it is the training and feeding. It’s the biggest part. By training I don’t just mean the training we put on in the winter but I work with my dogs year round. I hope all mushers would realize how important that is and what kind of difference that will make to the teams. We run our dogs free every day in the summer. It keeps their spirits up and happy. I think it makes a big difference in performance in the winter. GS: I remember, it was quite a while ago, maybe early 2000s that you had a video on your website, of you leaving your yard on your ATV with I don’t know how many dogs chasing behind you and it looked like you had to keep that thing wide open to stay in front of those dogs! Of course, when the dogs are tearing around the woods and on trails there is a potential for injury. Do you feel that the benefit of doing that outweighs any injuries you might get. HG: Absolutely. That’s a really good question. I was going to get into that. First of all, I’ve been loose running my dogs since I started racing 23 years ago. I’ve always run my dogs free. The free running has developed over the years from a pretty wild situation to a more controlled kind of free run. I also switched from the 4-wheeler to a dirt bike because it is so much easier to follow them. With the 4-wheeler I can’t keep up. I was doing 30, 35 miles on the 4-wheeler and I’d get passed by dogs left and right. So it’s a lot easier to stay with them. You have to be careful at those kinds of speeds. My dogs absolutely trust me. They are so used to the motorcycle or the quad. They go through the woods and cut right in front of me. With the dirt bike I have a lot more control. As far as injuries, in 20 years I’ve had two severe injuries. There is one dog, she is 6 years old now, my main breeding. She would have been a great dog but she ripped a ligament in her knee and we never raced. Another one was last year. He broke his front leg. Those are two accidents that happened in over 20 years. I definitely would say that it is worth it for the benefit I get out of it. I mean, the benefits outweigh the injuries.GS: When do you start your ATV training?HG: Last year I started mid-August. I don’t really care if it’s August or September or even the beginning of October. The temperature really determines that. I don’t run dogs when it’s above, I don’t know what it is in Fahrenheit, not much more than 5°C (41°F). Above that and I think you run into a risk of overheating dogs and it’s just not worth it. GS: You said that you think training plays a big part in allowing the dogs to be able to do this longer style of running. Jeff King once told me and I think he’s said this quite a few times, “It’s real simple Greg, you got to train the way you want to race.” Is that something that you adhere to? I mean if you want to get them ready for that kind of racing, do you train that way?HG: I absolutely prepare for that kind of racing. The 10 on 3 off is not something you do at the beginning of a race. There are people out there that take off with 9 or 10 hour runs. But when you look at my race schedule when I ran the Iditarod and what I ran in the Quest, I didn’t plan more than 7 or maximum 8 hours at the beginning. I gave them some pretty good breaks. I had by far the most rest time in the Quest and in the Iditarod from the top 5 teams. GS: So you ease into those longer runs as the dogs find their pace and rhythm during the race.HG: Exactly. Those extreme long runs with the short rests are more of what happens at the end of a race—the second half of the race. I still believe in giving the dogs a lot of breaks at the beginning and it paid off for me. In both races I had the fastest team at the end of the race.GS: Can you give our readers an idea of what a training run in, let’s say, January would look like for you—the speeds the dogs are traveling, the distance you’re going and the frequency of the training runs?HG: Well you’d be surprised. In January we already start cutting back. My really hard training miles are in November and December. Last year we started out really hard in November. We had really good snow here. The conditions were great so in October, I was running 17 miles on the quad every second day at least if not every day. So it was a lot of quad training but not more than 17 miles. That went on until the end of October and then I went straight from that to the sled. We went 45 miles out rested six to eight hours and went 45 miles back, a 90-mile run.GS: When you get on the sled and you do those 45-mile runs, what kind of pace are your dogs doing? HG: I have to hold them back of course because they want to go like crazy because it is the first time on the sled. I do not go much faster than 10 or 11 mph. GS: Would that be like the same thing on the quad when you are doing your 17-mile runs? Are you going 10-11 mph also?HG: Yes, I go about that speed, but I vary it quite a bit. On average, I probably go about 11 mph on the quad but there are times where they hit 18 mph on the down hills and I let them run. I don’t believe in the grinding and slowing them down all the time.GS: So are you saying your longest runs are 45-50 miles with a 6 hour break and then 45-50 miles back?HG: No, that’s how I started out in November. By mid November the team was ready to go on 180-mile runs: a 60-mile run, 6-hour break, another 60-mile run, a 6-hour break and then 60 miles home. That’s what I was doing mid-November to the end of December. GS: Is the training for the Quest the same kind of training for the Iditarod? HG: The training is exactly the same. People still think of the Quest as a slow race but when you look at the facts and do some research then you will find out that I’ve run the fastest 1,000 miles ever run by a dog team this year in the Quest. The Quest was actually faster in Alaska for years than the Iditarod because the trail conditions are a little bit better on the Quest. We don’t have all that snowmachine traffic out there and this year the temperature was great too. Yes, we had some really fast runs.GS: Do you think that these long runs and relatively short rest take more of a toll on the musher than the old style of racing, where the running and rest was more equal? HG: Yes, there’s no question about that. I counted it up this year and the time we sleep is virtually nothing any more. I had about 5½ hours sleep from Fairbanks to Dawson and not much more than 3 hours from Dawson to Whitehorse. The second half of the 1,000 miles you can’t sleep any more. With a 3-hour break, there is no point in laying down. GS: That’s almost unfathomable for someone who needs 8 hours a night in order to think straight. You’re obviously a fit person. I know you used to do these adventure races and that sort of thing. As the dogs adapt to that pace and rhythm, do you also adapt? Is it easier for you to do that later in a race rather than just starting out cold and staying awake that long? HG: I don’t know why but I have to say for me it was the easiest year ever in terms of sleep deprivation. I don’t know why. Susie figured out a really good diet for me. I eat some pretty healthy food out there and I think that makes a huge difference. A lot of people, when you see what they eat out there, it’s no wonder they can’t focus. GS: Give us an example of what you bring on the trail for healthy food. HG: It’s almost entirely vegetarian with very little meat involved. Pre-cooked meals like tuna casserole, spaghetti, lasagna, but it’s all vegetarian. I think that helped a lot. Like I say I was surprised myself how easy it was to stay awake and to stay focused. That’s a big problem. You can stay awake but there’s a lot of zombies running around out there and they don’t know what they are doing any more.GS: Running the Quest before the Iditarod: this question has been played out over the last 5 years and asked so many times but I’d like to get your take on it. You’ve run the Iditarod and you’ve run them in the same year. Sometimes you had good success in the Iditarod and sometimes it didn’t seem running the Quest before helped you much. What do you think about running the Quest before the Iditarod? Do you think it really is something in the future a musher will have to do to stay competitive in Iditarod?HG: No, absolutely not. I mean, it may look like it because some of us are doing it and we were successful in the Iditarod as well but I have to speak for myself. I am running the Iditarod and the Quest because there’s not much else. If I don’t run the Quest, then you put all your eggs in one basket and run the Iditarod. It’s plain and simple. I run for the money. I have to make some money to run both races and I have more chance to make some money than if I ran just one. If I had a choice I think it would be better not to run the Quest and just focus on the Iditarod. There’s no question about it. The Quest takes some out of the dogs and yes, they recover pretty quickly but I could tell that my team was better in the Quest than they were in the Iditarod. They had a lot more zip in the Quest. They were fresher. In the Iditarod they were good too, but that little spark was gone.GS: Your main leaders for the Quest—were they also your main leaders for the Iditarod and who were they?HG: Yes, Big Girl and Sunny were my main leaders, however later in the race in the Quest I switched to Kinvig and Stitch. They are a little younger and more loping dogs and they drive really hard. So I put them in lead in the last 200 miles of the race. GS: What are your plans for the next season?HG: Laughs. Well, I’m not retiring like the rumors say. I don’t know if we will do any 1,000-mile races. I’m not sure about that right now but we have to keep on racing. I might go back to Wyoming and run the Stage Stop.GS: I heard you were signed up for that. HG: I did put my name in it to reserve a spot because obviously there is limited entry so I wanted to make sure if I decided to go that I am in.GS: Let’s talk about that Wyoming race for a moment. That was a race, I guess it was in the late ‘90s, that you pretty much owned it. You won that race quite a few times in a row and it didn’t seem like anyone would beat you and then you moved on. That race has changed a bit also. The stages are a little bit shorter. I think the longest stage is 60 miles where there used to be some that were over 100 miles if I’m correct. If you do that race this year, it’s such a contrast now to these long distance races that you’ve done, how do you see yourself preparing your dogs differently or how do you see yourself doing in that race now?HG: The race has changed a little bit. I talked to Frank Teasley quite a bit. When you look at the times, I think we ran the same average speeds like 10 or 15 years ago down there than they do now even though with the longer stages we had so I don’t think it has changed much at all. I pretty much know how my team has to run to be competitive down in Wyoming. I will know ahead of time whether we have a competitive team or not. I don’t like the shorter stages as much. I really like the way the race used to be but it is what it is. It’s a little bit shorter, however it’s much more enjoyable for the people who handle down there now. It used to be a dog truck race from the start line to the finish line. Now it’s all out and back stages so it makes it a lot more easy for the organization and everybody involved, including the mushers.GS: Stage racing is a type of race that answers a lot of our problems in this sport. It’s a little more dog-friendly than an ultra long distance race. It’s a little more spectator-friendly. There are just so many advantages to it yet you still have the longer distances of a week of racing so when you are promoting a race to the public, you’re not saying well this is a 30-mile race or 75 miles total. You’re saying this is a 300-mile race. You still have that kind of romanticism of a longer distance to sell to the public. I’ve been really surprised that the format hasn’t taken off. I think the main reason, and this is just my conjecture, but I think they are just so hard to organize over that many days and that many places. What is your take on it? HG: Yes. First of all, they are hard to organize and they take a lot of time. They are time consuming. Not everybody has 2 or 3 weeks. You have to go down there early to get your team adjusted to the altitude. Now the race is only one week long but it used to be 2 weeks of straight racing. So they are very time consuming. GS: How important do you think it is to adapt the dogs to the altitude before you race there and how long do you think you have to do that? HG: I always went down there 2 weeks before the race start and I think anything shorter doesn’t make any sense. Then it would be better to just go down there very shortly before the race.GS: And during those 2 weeks you trained: did you train pretty heavily or lightly?HG: It’s just amazing. The first few runs you could really tell the dogs were feeling the altitude so I started out with very short runs, 5-mile runs, the first few days and then eventually I did a couple of 25-mile runs, but I never went any further than that. GS: Now getting back to the Iditarod race this year, there weren’t any storms like last year, but there was some cold and there was the usual weather that you see when you’re traveling from Anchorage to Nome, but did the cold temperatures affect you at all? HG: I guess everybody is affected by the cold. Some people can deal with it better than others. I used to be able to deal really good with the cold, however, over the last few years my circulation is not the same any more. I use a lot more hand warmers than I used to. Yes, the cold was definitely a big factor in this year’s Iditarod. When it’s 40 below the sleds just don’t slide well no matter what plastic you are using. It just slows the race down. You’ve got to be very careful. That’s when it really comes into play—how you feed your dog team. They can get skinny in a hurry if you don’t know how to take care of them. GS: Moving to the Quest. I remember something from the interview I did with you a while ago, you talked about how you travel. You have a lot of faith in your dog team to get you from point A to point B and that allows you to travel with a little less gear, especially during a race like the Quest where the checkpoints are pretty far apart. This year were you able to do that in the Quest? The running times were faster so you knew you wouldn’t be out there as long. Do you think you traveled with less gear in your sled? Just the basic essentials and less gear than some of the other mushers did? HG: I don’t think, for example, Lance has any more in his sled than I have. I think he travels with the minimum as well. I don’t carry any spare clothing. Now, with these long runs we carry less dog food as well. When you take that run, for example, from Dawson City to Pelly, which is 210 miles, we used to do it in 4 runs and this year we did it in 2 runs. It’s just unbelievable. So obviously you do it a lot faster so you cut so many hours off you need less food. GS: There’s no time to eat. HG: They eat on the trail, but there’s still those main meals, what you feed at a 6-hour rest, they are cut out. There’s only one of those stops while there was 3 stops before. GS: What, in your opinion, as constructive criticism, do you think that some of these big races could do to improve, if anything? Mainly the Quest and the Iditarod.HG: I think the Iditarod, more than the Quest, has to look into much better qualifying for the rookies. There are people out there that shouldn’t be there. I think that has been a big problem in the past and the last few years and that’s where a lot of the criticism comes from. I think they just have to come up with a way tougher qualification program. Make it mandatory that everybody has to run at least the Copper Basin. That race is one of the toughest out there. Like if I talk to a rookie I recommend it to anybody. I don’t like that race all that much because it can be a real son of a gun. The trail is usually missing at some point and sometimes it’s not that well organized but it prepares you definitely better than any other race for the Quest or the Iditarod. I think both the Iditarod and the Quest have to look into making the qualifying a lot tougher. GS: Well it would mean more for someone who actually qualifies for the Iditarod if it was tougher to qualify. It would be a bigger accomplishment. I’m not a distance racer but it’s hard for me to fathom how any race in the lower 48, no matter if it’s a 200- or 300-mile race, could prepare you for what you see in the Iditarod.HG: They don’t. They absolutely do not prepare you. Everybody should at least come up and run the Copper Basin. Then of course all these leased teams out there. These people are not mushers. They have a pile of money and can afford to lease a team. It is a problem. I don’t have the answer for it. GS: Well the races have come a long way since they started and I think as any business or any event evolves it has growing pains and sometimes those problems that come up are good problems. They are problems caused by the success and popularity of the race and I think those problems certainly will be overcome. The Iditarod has already taken steps to do exactly what you mentioned by toughening the qualifications and adding the musher report card and that sort of thing.HG: Yes, they are going in that direction but I think it has to be a lot tougher still because there are people slipping through this program left and right. Heck, it’s all about taking care of your dog team and if the dog care is lacking that’s a huge problem and I absolutely have a problem with that myself. If I see teams that are not taking care of. I was at the finish line at Nome this year and there were a lot of teams coming in at the back of the pack and it was shocking to me that some of them did not look the way they should. These people, they are taking 10-hour breaks at the checkpoints. There is no reason why dogs should come in skinny to Nome. So there are problems and they have to be taken care of. GS: That’s well said. Well, Hans, thank you so much for the time. I know you are really busy this time of year as it is with you all times of the year. Thanks for taking the time to do the interview. HG: Thank you. It was a pleasure talking to you. •

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