Featured in the Sept/Oct 2007 Issue of Mushing MagazinePaul Gebhardt, the perennial Iditarod front-runner, is the subject of our interview about sled dogs and long distance strategy. Gebhardt is a name race pundits recognize—he has raced the Iditarod eleven times and put $318,020.18 in his pocket, which is a good measure of his consistent performances, including two 2nd places behind Swingley and Mackey. He will certainly be ranked with Lance Mackey as a pre-race favorite to win the 2008 Iditarod.Gebhardt was first introduced to sled dogs in 1992 by Martin Buser, the four time Iditarod Champ, while the two were working on Dean Osmar’s fishing crews in Kasilof, Alaska. I called up Dean to ask about those early years. True, Paul was one of his key fishermen, but Dean reminded me that what everyone forgets about Paul Gebhardt are his building skills. He is a master carpenter. “He built my house,” which is a statement, since Dean’s Cape Cod style house overlooking the ocean is an impressively built project with a grand view of the ocean and a local landmark.With Dean’s house as an exhibit of his work, Paul built many other exquisite homes on the Kenai, including Iditarod Champ Mitch Seavey’s distinctive log home in Sterling, Alaska. When Paul says he builds his own sleds, look for the underlying message. Gebhardt builds architectural masterpieces.When I called Paul for this interview, he was once again on the job building another high-end home. His summers are a hustle as he works as a building contractor, reserving just enough time to keep his dog kennel in order. However, as we will discover in the following interview, Paul does not begin training until September 1.As a personality, Paul Gebhardt is one of those rare guys with an irrepressible optimism that just puts all of his friends on alert—you better quit whining because Paul Gebhardt is going to figure out a way to make the most dismal situation seem like a godsend. He’s also got a good sense of humor, especially when conditions are just abysmal. I interviewed him one time when he was suffering from a horrific cold and sore throat and looked like a medi-vac prospect with his inflamed nostrils and perpetual hacking and sneezing. He told me, “Why do you think I am moving so fast, I just want to get this crap over with.” The worse it gets, the more motivated he seems to be.I’ll admit it, he has surprised me. On more than one occasion, he’s made me take note when I realize his thinking is right on. For example, in the 2006 Iditarod I had a chance to talk to him in Galena, where he was unconventionally leading the race and taking his 24-hour mandatory break. His situation seemed absurd, since the pack was just a few hours behind him in Ruby. The others had taken their 24 a couple of hundred miles back in Takotna and Cripple.Personally, I liked his strategy because I have always felt that you have a better chance of beating better teams by simply going farther into the race for a 24-hour break. If you have a good team, you might beat the best team. If you have the best team, you’ll win for sure. At any rate, the checkpoint at Galena was like a first class hotel. Paul had taken a shower, had his own personal room with a nice bed, and was in his normal totally optimistic mood. He told me, “I’m going to surprise a lot of people and catch them.”Many race pundits were judging him completely out of the running because of his reckless solo journey all the way to the Yukon and then another 50 miles to Galena. However, guess what?, he smoked the trail and made 12 hours on some competitors and ultimately finished in 3rd place in 2006 with a team that was still taking time from the front runners.On July 24, 2007, I had a chance to ask Paul a few questions about his dogs and strategy:Is it true that you raise all your dogs from pups- and never purchase or trade for outside pups?When they’re fed, it’s me doing the feeding. When they’re hurt, it’s me taking care of them. When they need an “atta boy” you know, it’s me giving them a pat. If they need to be told “no”, well I do it. Everything is about me and them.You think that close connection has a lot to do with your success?I think it has a lot to do with my success when I ask a lot from my dog team.Well, like last year when Lance (Mackey) and I made some long hard runs with short rest—I am asking a lot from a dog team. If they weren’t totally, 100 percent, devoted to me like Lance’s were devoted to him, they wouldn’t do that for you.You never seemed worried in the first half of the race when there are many teams faster than you. What makes you so confident that you will eat them up in the second half?Well, I’ve run this team of dogs and this line of dogs and trained them to start out slow with equal or more rest than they are running. They are still in training on the first half of the race.When we got to Takotna last year (almost half way on the race) I was looking at the time differences of me, Lance, Martin (Buser) and Jeff (King) and Zack Steer. Those guys were leading the race at the time, and we were about six hours behind.It was time to start getting some of that time back. You can only let so much get away and then you have to take it back. The difference was that my team could keep taking it back all the way to Nome, and their teams were actually losing gas because they cut their rest short in the beginning of the race.You and Lance did things that were absolutely phenomenal in the last third of the race. Tell us about the run-rest schedule from Kaltag to the finish, were you ever worried?We actually started our run rest schedule at Iditarod when Lance and I took our 24-hour mandatory rest together (in Iditarod.) Literally, we left Iditarod something like 2 minutes apart, and we talked to each other and noticed that our dog teams were very comparable. Our traveling speeds and the personality of the teams were very similar.We weren’t worried. We were talking to Mitch Seavey and Ed Iten, at Iditarod, and they said we were too far behind, and were wondering which of those guys in the front was going to win.I said, “Hey, this isn’t over until we get to Nome.” I told Lance that we have the upper hand right now, because we’re behind them and we can watch, and whenever they stop and rest, we’re going to take a half hour less rest. We took our 24-hour a hundred miles ahead of them and further into the rest and our dogs have more rest.(Mackey and Gebhardt took their 24 at Iditarod. King, Buser, and Steer were behind at Takotna and Ophir. It was a tough 100 miles from Ophir to Iditarod. The strategic difference in opinion was when to tackle the 100 miles—before or after the 24-hour mandatory.)What we didn’t count on, and which was a blessing, was that our dog teams seemed in better condition, we were making a half hour to forty-five minutes on every run, besides taking a half hour less rest. We were making an hour to an hour fifteen minutes with every run. We did that all the way to Kaltag.At Kaltag, we kept the same strategy and took about a half hour to 35 minutes less rest per checkpoint. At that point, I told Lance, “We’re going to catch those guys before we get much farther.”Sure enough, we came into Unalakleet, and Lance actually passed Martin, and I came in right behind him. We had made up the whole six hours, and we continued on our run/rest schedule while the other guys were resting longer and taking longer to cover the same distance.If you look at the miles per hour analysis, Lance and I were running about a mile an hour or more faster than those guys and we just kept going with that short rest period because the dogs were adapting to it so well.The dogs weren’t losing weight, they were healthy, and they got up to go when we wanted to leave. They were drinking, no dehydration, no injuries, so everything was going fantastic.We just kept going and that’s how we made the time difference.That was just incredible, but it takes a lot of patience, a lot of confidence to gamble like that in the first half of the race?Oh, yeah, it does…You are one of the few people who rose to the upper level of competition and then started a kennel all over again. How hard was that to do? And do you recommend it?It was very hard to do. We were never really out of dogs. We sold dogs (in 2001/2002). I had 87 dogs and then we sold down to 16 dogs—which consisted of 6 adults and ten puppies. These were then ones I felt would be the breeding stock.But, dog mushing is traditionally hard on family life, and we needed time for the family, and we just took it. Fortunately, we kept the right breeding stock. I bred them up and we came back in the following year with a brand new team. We did finish in the top twenty, and every year those dogs got better as I predicted they could do. I figured they would be as good as before, but they are actually better.(In fact, look at the record. 2002 was his off year. The following year 23rd, then 19th, then 9th, then 3rd, and finally 2nd in 2007 and he’s back at the top again.)I would definitely not recommend it. It’s not something you are going to do to win. It is a really tough road to follow. (Well, look how long it took Paul Gebhardt to get back on top—and he knew what he was doing.)Where are the young guys? Why can’t a 28 year old beat a 50 year old Paul Gebhardt?Well, Lance kind of put that to rest, what is he, 37? He’s one of the younger champions we have had for awhile. But look at the year before, and the top four finishers were fifty years or older. (King, Swingley, Gebhardt, and Jonrowe) Most of the top ten is usually fifty years and older.Part of the reason is the patience game we have already talked about. The young mushers don’t have the patience to wait—they predictably burn their teams up early in the race.The other thing is the mental aspect. At fifty years old, someone tells me I can’t do that, and I just think, what are you talking about, I know I can do it because I have done it before. You have the audacity to dig a little deeper, and say, I can do that.Tell us, as much you are willing, about your training plans for this year.Well, I can tell you exactly how I am going to train, just like the last two years.I have the exact team as last year. There are a couple of challengers, just like the NFL, and these young dogs are going to have to prove to me they can challenge the veteran team member.Look at it this way. I have exactly the same dogs that were two years old when we placed 3rd. This year, the same team was 2nd. My team is approaching four years old, with the exception of Houston who is seven.If you look at the team and you look at the trend, I am the guy, along with Lance, who has the team to beat for 2008. Lance and I, if you look at how the teams have developed, have the two best teams out there.Give us a run down, how does Paul Gebhardt prepare this team of veterans for the Iditarod?I start very slowly. My start date for training is September 1st. I used to start earlier, but I felt the temperatures were too hot and the training did more damage than it did good.I start September 1st with very short runs of 1½ to 2 miles. The dogs pull a four-wheeler and we go very slowly. I think it’s important to realize that dogs are no different than human athletes. You need to condition their muscles and joints before you let them go. You can let them go and they will go fast, but I believe you do damage. Starting Sept. 1st, I train the dogs slowly to build up all those tissues—muscles and joints. They learn how to work and trot. By November, I think they are ready to travel as fast as they want.I am on a one-day on, one-day off schedule by November. I run dogs every day, because I have enough for two teams. But the race dogs get their workouts every other day. We will race a couple of mid-distance races, just to make sure they remember what racing is all about.Joe Runyan lives in Cliff, New Mexico and guides and outfits in the Gila Wilderness. He has officiated sled dog races in Europe, South and North America. He is a past winner of the Iditarod, Yukon Quest, and Alpirod. He now provides commentary and writes mushing, outdoor, and hunting articles. Runyan’s Winning Strategies for Distance Mushers (1997) is available from the author. Contact Joe at email@example.com.
Dog scootering involves having your dog(s) pull you on a wheeled scooter whilst attached via