SMOKING SIBES: THE RACING SIBERIAN HUSKIES OF MIKE ELLIS

To the vast majority who race Alaskan huskies, those select few who run purebred Siberian huskies are a mysterious secret society.They’re like the Priory of Sion, Illuminati and Masons all rolled into one. Due to their “pretty dogs,” some competitors don’t view those who run Sibes as really racing, but it’s tough to argue that point with Two Rivers, Alaska musher Mike Ellis. He’s the man who currently holds the record for the fastest fully-registered team of Siberian huskies in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest, and he has left many Alaskan drivers eating his powder in gaining this record.“I don’t think the teams around me in a race have any doubt I’m racing,” Ellis said. “I’m just driving a classic car in a NASCAR race.”Ellis stormed the scene in the 2008 Quest, when he finished in 12 days 9 hours 58 minutes, and broke the record for the fastest fully-registered team of Sibes set by Peter Thomman who finished in 12 days 14 hours 27 minutes back in 1990. In 2010, Ellis came back to crush his own record by finishing the race in 10 days 20 hours and 29 minutes. This is more than a day faster than anyone has ever run Quest or Iditarod with Siberians.  (Blake Freking holds the Siberian record in Iditarod set this year with his finish in 11 days 20 hours 39 minutes 11 seconds.“We’re really proud of this and hope it shows others that it’s possible,” Ellis said. “I hope the record falls next year.”Ellis’ accomplishment did not come without much hard work though, and he’s paid his dues scooping poop and running dogs for others. He started handling in the fall of 1993, working with a Siberian husky kennel in central New Hampshire.  That same year he ran his first races, a 60-miler in Marmora, Ontario and Sandwich, NH.  After that he knew he was hooked. He came to Two Rivers the following summer to handle for a Quest musher who was away for most of the summer, but personal issues chased him back to the East coast before snow fell. He picked up with the old kennel and ran their dogs for the next few years, before him and his wife, Sue, ventured onto their own.“We started our own kennel from two Siberians we took on as puppies. One of them was my engagement present to Sue,” Ellis said. “Those two dogs, Wyatt and Birch, produced our first litter in 1998.  By 2000 we entered our first 30-mile races with our own 5-dog team, and in 2004 we finished our first Can-Am 250.”Success in this long race really bolstered Ellis’ confidence and his desire to challenge himself further. As a musher’s musher Ellis knew there was a race that called to him. A cold, dark race with huge distances between the handful of checkpoints. It was a place he thought his team could thrive.“In 2005 we had two litters with the intent of a one-time run at the Yukon Quest,” he said, and in 2008 he made that dream a reality. Not by relying on handlers or others to do all the training miles for him, either. Ellis, who works summers as a surveyor and cabin builder, and his wife, who works as a veterinary technician, run their own dogs. It is their brow covered in sweat, their lower backs that are sore, and their finger tips that are cracked and frostbitten, but they know it is also only them who gets credit for all this hard work.“Sue and I do all the work of preparing the team,” he said. “I basically train the Quest team, but Sue is always running the young and old dogs. She’s a really good musher on her own, but for now, she wants to stick with the 200- to 300-mile races. Her handling skills and knowledge of the team are invaluable in my Quest racing, especially at Dawson where she can be hands-on with the team.“As to the reasons Ellis runs Sibes, he said it was more about them choosing him than the other way around. The relationship hasn’t been without criticism from those who run Alaskans.“I started with Siberians and simply fell in love with the personalities of these dogs.  When I went to Alaska the first time, I worked with Alaskans and got my first real dose of some ‘slow-berian’ talk. I wasn’t bonding well with the dogs I was working with and this kind of drove me back into the paws of the Siberians,” Ellis said. “As far as staying with them, I just love the dogs we have. The fact that they are AKC registered Siberian huskies wasn’t really ever important to me, but if you want to breed to other purebred dogs, they’ve got to have papers. It’s just that I love the dogs’ personalities and now we have kind of carved ourselves a niche, being a little unique. So, it’s kind of inertia that keeps us within the registry, but it’s the dogs that keep us with Siberians.”After coming up for the winter racing season several years in a row, Ellis and his wife made a permanent move to Alaska in 2009. “Moving to Alaska just became necessary to continue to race the Quest,” he said. “We went back and forth from New Hampshire our first two Quests and it was just too expensive.  We needed to be in our own place up here. Being comfortable—both dogs and musher— with what you’re doing is perhaps the most important thing in distance mushing, and familiarity and experience builds confidence. You’ll never see a great distance musher who isn’t confident.”While competitively running Sibes in Alaska is even more unique than it was in the Lower 48, Ellis said the differentiation from him and other racers is much less.“Back East, having a registered team was more of a big deal, and there’s a lot more of them,” he said. “Some race organizations there check the papers and give special awards for fastest Siberian teams, a race within the race. Here in Alaska, it really doesn’t mean anything as far as racing goes.”He doesn’t mind not being separated from the competition based on the breed of dogs he runs, because he said standing out for how he runs his dogs, and how he cares for them, is what is really important to him.“I want to continue to run the Quest and continue to improve how we do it. If that means we move up in the standings, great,” he said. “I think my greatest accomplishment as a musher is having strong reciprocal respect and love with my team. That manifests itself in the awards we’ve won including Vet’s Choice awards for me at the 2007 Wilderness 100 in Maine, the 2008 Two Rivers 200, the 2009 Copper Basin 300, the 2009 GinGin 200, and Sue winning that same award at this year’s Two Rivers 200. We’re very proud of our dog team and do the very best we can to keep them healthy, happy, and comfortable wherever we are and whatever we’re doing.”All these awards came from race officials who recognized that while Ellis may run a breed known for having thick coats and feet like leather, he said he still coddles his canines like they were the same thinner-coated, more tender-footed Alaskan huskies of his competitors. “They do hold up in the cold really well,” he said, “but we don’t use that as excuse to cut corners or be lazy. Our dogs still get booties most of the time. They still wear coats in the checkpoints to conserve energy. They still need wind protection when the weather turns tough.”Other than appearance, there are a few distinctions between Ellis’ Sibes and the dogs of his competitors, and some of these differences are perks to his performance. “Their metabolisms run slower than most racing dogs, so I have to carry less food with me than most folks we run against,” he said. “That’s a big advantage on some of the long runs in Quest. The longer the runs, the more competitive we are.” However, not all of the Siberians’ differences are pros, according to Ellis.“The Sibes are a different dog completely from Alaskans,” Ellis said. “It’s mostly in their heads. They are always holding back, saving some fuel in the tank. I guess that’s the biggest challenge of running Sibes: understanding and accepting that they are not going to give me 100 percent for any period of time, ever. Put a moose in front of them and maybe we’ll get 100 percent, but other than that, they are saving some for later. I have to accept that’s who and what they are.”Ellis said this is a tough pill to swallow sometimes because competition burns deep within him in every race he enters.“It’s always kind of been common knowledge in mushing that Sibes can’t compete, but I never really liked being told I couldn’t do something,” he said. “I would love to go have the chance to win races. I’m competitive and would love to run for the win in the Quest. Being realistic, it’s not possible with the dogs we have, but I am always looking to do better. I’m still looking to improve with our Siberians for as long as I can.”“If I ever think we’ve gone as far as we possibly can with the Siberians, then I might consider racing with Alaskans,” Ellis added, “but I know I can still do better with the Siberians and it’s fun doing what ‘they’ say can’t be done.” •

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