Hugh Neff has spent the last 15 years transforming himself. Gone is the rag-tag transplant from Chicago who showed up at races with no money, too few dogs and very little experience. In his place is a professional who has honed his craft through due diligence.Neff has helped start races (such as the Yukon Flats 400), assisted other mushers (such as Josh Cadzow, whose 2009 Yukon Quest entry fee he paid) in living their distance racing dreams, and he travels the country educating and inspiring young people about the mushing lifestyle. Neff also annually vies for the victory in the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest sled dog races, and some believe it is only a matter of time until he secures a win in one or both of these mushing ultra-marathons. Through this transformation, however, Neff has never forgotten his humble beginning or the core values he holds most dear.“Long distance dog mushing, for me, is more about my spirituality for the wilderness than it is a race to win prize money and trophies,” he said. “I enjoy the land, the people and the feeling of being on the trail with these amazing beasts of nature.”Neff got his start with sled dogs in Fairbanks back in 1995. Rather than slowly wading into the waters of mushing, he threw himself into the deep end of the sport. Working in Chena Marina, for top-Alaskan sprint mushers Curtis Erhart and Bill Mitchell, Neff cared for and trained more than 200 dogs on a daily basis. Within 12 months he had accrued 30 dogs of his own, and after a few years, Neff got the itch to try racing. He competed in the Minto 90 in 1998. “It was a two-day event,” he remembered. “We came in 3rd out of a dozen teams.”Neff relished in testing the dogs and himself, and competing against other mushers. He wanted a greater experience that would last more than a day or two. He signed-up for the Yukon Quest in 2000. It was an eye-opening experience, but despite hardships, such as using hand-me-down gear and running most of the race with only nine dogs, he persevered to a thirteenth-place finish and even managed to earn the coveted “Challenge of the North Award,” given to the musher who best displays the spirit of the race.“I can laugh now looking back at it,” Neff said. “Yet, where there’s a will there’s a way. Having faith in what one believes in – their ‘vision’ – is paramount to success.”Using his winnings from the previous season, Neff bankrolled the next, a pattern he continues to this day.“I often don’t know how I’ll pay for everything that’s needed when I sign up for a race, but I trust that it will all come together and work out,” he said.  “A person who only sees the obstacles will find it difficult to find their way through to their goal.” Neff doesn’t buy new gear every season like some mushers with huge corporate sponsorships. He is thrifty year-round, but when racing he doesn’t skimp when it comes to sending out groceries and gear for the dogs.“I think due to my humble beginnings, I am more worried about not sending out enough supplies,” he said. “I now send out more supplies than my competitors especially in the Quest when I know I’ll get it all back.  In that race I generally send out five bags per checkpoint and end up using only one. All of the extra supplies are used for later races such as the Kobuk 440 or Yukon Flats.”Neff said he has also found that because of this recycling of unused supplies, his can afford to do more races, such as the Quest and the Iditarod, both in the same year, as he has done for the past six seasons. He has run the two 1000-mile races back-to-back more than any other competitor in history.“Since 2000, I’ve run 10 Yukon Quests and seven Iditarods,” he said. “That a total of 17 1000-mile races.”This has been a lot of ground to cover, literally and figuratively. And, cramming so much racing into such a narrow time frame has allowed Neff to hold his own at the front of the pack with mushers with far more time into the sport, such as Lance Mackey, Jeff King and Hans Gatt, who at the least, have all been on the runners a decade or more than Neff.“The benefit of doing both races each year is the experience,” he said. “I think I improve as a musher with each race I do.  You just can’t simulate a race in training. A lot of dog mushing is learning the tricks of the trail, and every race I realize there’s always more to learn. I’m now running races with the best in the sport after only 10 years.  Others have done it in fewer years, but they’ve grown up in mushing families, whereas I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago.”Running the Quest and the Iditarod each year isn’t easy though. It takes two-times the planning, packing and preparing, much of which must be done while on the trail racing.“The logistics can be quite challenging in running both races,” Neff said. “Having the extra week now between the events makes things a bit easier.  Every year I have to find someone I trust to make sure my Iditarod drop bags get delivered during the Quest and all the paper work is handed in ahead of time.  I’m usually finishing them off in the last week before the Quest in between scheduled Quest functions and meetings.  Neff’s kennel partner and fiancée, Tamra Reynolds, also bares a brunt of the logistical load. “She makes sure the Iditarod EKGs and blood testing are scheduled for the last few days before the Iditarod starts because the rest of the appointments are during the Quest,” he said.There is some overlap in the dogs that run both races, but Neff said it usually isn’t until the last minute that he determines which ones will do double duty.“I never really know which dogs will comprise my Iditarod team until a day or so before the race,” he said. “It all depends on who has the best attitude after the Quest.  I tend to favor Quest dogs to run the Iditarod as I trust them more and I already know they work well together.  I try to have a team in the Quest 300 as well so I have a bigger pool of dogs to pick from.”  Usually this boils down to between 10 and 12 dogs from the Quest that are on Neff’s Iditarod team each year, but running both races with the same dogs often means Neff must govern how hard he pushes in the Quest. “The upcoming Iditarod is often on my mind during the Quest,” he said. “I probably drop more dogs in the Quest because I’m wanting to save them for the Iditarod, or not wanting to risk making a small injury worse that would potentially take them out of the Iditarod team.”The Quest run also has an effect on Neff’s dogs that do go on the Iditarod.  “My Iditarod team is perhaps a bit slower from having done the Quest, but I think that helps at the start, that they’re going slower and can run longer because they’re already in tune from having done long runs in the Quest.  Physically I think the dogs benefit from having done the Quest.  They’re stronger and tougher.  I think doing both races affects me and the dogs mentally near the end of Iditarod, though.  It’s difficult to keep up the motivation, and some of the younger dogs start questioning what’s going on near the end.  I usually end up dropping the younger dogs in the last day or so of the race if they start looking overwhelmed.”Unlike some mushers who make their distance-racing final picks from 100 or more dogs, Neff said he has a smaller pool to choose from. In recent years he has learned that rather than opting for a quantity of dogs, it is more about the quality of care given to a select few that is a recipe for success.“I usually start with around 40—including yearlings—and then by November I’m training the core group of between 25 and 30. Usually by race time I’m picking from around 20 to 24,” he said.Neff has also learned family groups work best for his kennel program.“My first five years participating in 1,000-mile races, I ran sprintier lines; dogs that were quite talented, but not from the same litters,” he said. “We’ve learned through experience that raising up our own pups is more beneficial. A team from the same family seems to usually be more cohesive as a unit, and more loyal.  We have had success having only one or two litters a year, focusing our attention on fewer pups. The past couple of years we’ve had between 80 and 90 percent of the pups make the team.  We don’t believe in the theory of having lots of litters and picking only the best from each litter.  Last year the team was made up of primarily two families. “ Neff said there is also something to be noted in a strong bond between him and his dogs.“Long-distance mushing is as much about the human-dog bond as it is genetics,” he said. “Our canine friends are more highly evolved than most humans ever give them credit for. Communication is key. If a player doesn’t get along with his coach and teammates it really doesn’t matter how talented they are.”This ideal has bled into Neff’s training style, which like him is constantly evolving each season.“Training is as much psychological as it is a physical workout on the dogs,” he said.” The type of training depends on the dogs’ ages.  We typically train younger dogs more often than the older ones. A musher can sour a great veteran leader by keeping them in lead too much.  Training should be primarily for younger dogs, I’m constantly rotating dogs in lead according to their abilities.”  Neff added he favors “cross-training” in which he rarely runs long hours at a time in training. Instead he will split up a long run with a short rest somewhere along the trail, and he’s always mixing up where that spot will be. He also utilizes a variety of trail conditions—such as hills, flats and water crossings—so the dogs are always learning and not getting bored.  “In the fall we base our training schedule around the weather.  We look for rainy, windy days in the fall for ideal training.  Numerous water crossings are beneficial for training, not only for hydration, but toughness of mind as well. A variety of experiences in training helps to ensure better execution in races. “Neff said he also has mixed feelings about using mid-distance races as training for long-distance racing success.“It’s difficult to do well at both mid-distance and long-distance races with the same team,” he said. “Through time I’ve learned that mid-distance races are often at the coldest time of the year and usually with a trail only recently put in. I don’t like the total mandatory rest time in mid-distance races, as it necessitates long runs and short rests early in the race. It’s too early in the season—the majority of the teams don’t have enough quality training. The speeds of mid-distance races are also increasing with advanced competition and sprintier dogs.”  Because of these factors, Neff said, with the exception of the Kuskokwim 300, he prefers to run mid-distance races in spring.  “I really like the Native village mid-distance races for being organized well and with decent purses,” he said. “In the future I plan to concentrate on the Kusko, Kobuk and Yukon Flats races in addition to the Quest and Iditarod. It would be nice to help create a few other events in other unexplored parts of Alaska and the Yukon, life is an adventure after all.”Just as important as the number of miles in training, is how a musher treats their dogs’ recovery, Neff said. “We often have over 10 dogs in the house, especially after long runs to de-ice, drink ample water and relax in the warmth,” he said. “We also have large fenced areas that we bring whole litters into to let them run and play with their siblings, which helps them stretch out.  Supervised pen playtime is safer than free running on trails where porcupines or other critters might stir up trouble.” Neff also attempts to hire handlers that just like to be around dogs, rather than those solely seeking to be competitive.  “We want to make sure the dogs get loads of attention,” he said. “Our end goal is to keep the dogs happy and enthused. For us it’s more about our enjoyment of the lifestyle than the science of the competition.  It’s nice to be efficient, but one should never be in too big of a hurry around the dogs.” Keeping this attitude, Neff said he intends to keep running the Quest and the Iditarod for as many years as the dogs are willing and his body can handle it. “The more the merrier,” he said. “Each year a part of me feels like a rookie, heading out on a grand adventure.”Neff said he hopes to one day cross the finish line first, but he said he’s not willing to put all his eggs in one basket just to try for a win.“Life shouldn’t be just about winning and it should be considered a true honor just to be a part of these races. We’re lucky in this day and age to have all the volunteers and organizers that make these events a reality each year. As racers I think it’s important to give back to the sport where possible, whether it be financial or the giving of your time,” he said. “I think running the Quest sets up the dogs to run a good Iditarod.  I love both races and both trails and I would find it torturous to have to sit either one out for a year and watch from the sidelines. Not doing the Quest might help my placing in the Iditarod but I’m not willing to sacrifice being a part of both events that have touched my soul over time.”  •


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