THE SMYTH BROTHERS STRIVING FOR SUCCESS

The Smyth brothers, 34 year old Ramey and 33 year old Cim, have proven themselves to be mid-distance race masters over the past decade, but they’ve recently set their sights on winning something larger than a 200 or 300 mile race. They desire to win the Iditarod, and if this past season’s Last Great Race was any indication, they may be well on their way to achieving this goal.“It’s my strategy to keep dog food in the shed,” said Ramey of his 9th place finish in this year’s Iditarod. It was his sixth time finishing in the coveted Top 10 out of the 15 years he has competed in the race, and only a slight backslide from his career best third place finish in 2008. Cim did even better this year, finishing in 5th place, his first time in the Top 10 out of eight attempts. He was humble about his performance, stating simply, “In terms of 1,000 mile races, I’ve learned I don’t know all the things I thought I did, but I’m starting to figure it out.”Of course, the learning curve for the Smyth brothers is slightly different than it would be for the average musher. They grew up in a mushing home where both parents competed in long distance racing. Father Bud Smyth is a six-time Iditarod veteran placing as high as 4th in 1976, while their mother, the late Lolly Medley became the second woman to ever cross the finish line in Nome, coming in 29 minutes after Mary Shields in 1974. Like their parents, the Smyth brothers were bitten by the racing bug early, and both carved their name into the record books with first place finishes in the Junior Iditarod, Ramey in 1992 and 1993, and Cim in 1994. The two graduated to then take control of several mid-distance races around the state. Ramey is a three-time winner of the grueling Tustumena 200 as well as the Knik 200, and he has claimed victory in the Kuskokwim 300. Cim is also a two-time T-200 champion, and has for the past four consecutive years dominated the Klondike 300.Their accomplishments are undeniably amazing given their short and still budding professional careers, but even more so when their kennel sizes and training regimes are taken into consideration. Ramey, who is based out of Willow, AK, has 55 dogs in the kennel he shares with his wife and fellow musher Becca Moore, and he said all the dogs run regularly despite some being what would typically be considered “advanced” in age.“I train them all, even the geriatrics. We believe in running them all, even if only 24 realistically have a chance of making it to the Iditarod starting line,” Ramey said, and while many mushers talk this talk, Ramey actually walks it, as evident by his lead dog and kennel matriarch Babe. “She goes because I trust her,” Ramey said of 11 year old Babe, who this year made it to Safety, but who has made it all the way to Nome in every other year since 2000, and even claimed the Golden Harness award in 2008, after leading Smyth most of the way to his third place finish.“I would never take her if I thought there could be a problem, but in Shaktoolik when the wind is blowing, you don’t want a dog that has never been there. You want a dog that’s like ‘Let’s get this done!’ and that’s Babe. She’ll look as good 10 days out as she would one or two days out,” he said.Ramey hasn’t had puppies in a few years for financial reasons, but most of his dogs are from his own lines, and he said he starts setting his sights on dogs displaying characteristics like Babe at a fairly early age.“To find a good distance dog I look for attitude. I want a dog that wants to keep working. It’s got to have an extreme enjoyment for what a sled dog does. So, I look for a dog that has it mentally, and if they have it young, and you treat them right, they keep going and become even more mentally sound as they get older. Other than that, I don’t care if they’re male or female or black, white or green. I just want them to work hard and not get hurt,” he said.Cim shared similar sentiments about what he has looked for in building his 60 dog kennel just outside of Big Lake, AK, and in developing his main leader, an 8 year old male named Shire, and a grandson of Ramey’s leader Babe. “I like dogs that have good speed, good gaits, good feet and are good eaters, but the bottom line is a dog with a good attitude and with intensity – a dog that can dig inside itself. If I see a pup with intensity, I know I can create a good dog,” he said.Having a skilled eye for spotting pups with talent isn’t enough to create champion dogs. These dogs must be developed through years of training, and the Smyths said they have a proven training regime, their problem is just finding the time to carry it out while not falling behind on making enough of a living to keep food on their tables and in their dog’s bowls. “I was 7th in 2002 and 2003, then 4th in 2004. I was really focused for a number of years and was getting better and better, but then I started my business: Smyth Log Work, and I started a family, my daughter Ava was born in November of 2006. It got tough to train early and chase snow, but the last few years I’ve been able to find a balance, and things are going well,” Ramey said.Now that his daughter is getting older, Ramey and his wife are able to train with the discipline needed to succeed in long distance racing. “Becca usually does the first couple of months of training while I’m still finishing up construction work, then I’ll start in around October. After that we find snow and try to build them up as quickly as we can, taking Ava with us, even on 50 mile runs,” he said.Ramey said he’s not one to give up too many secrets of what makes him successful, but he was willing to share a few specifics of where and how he trains. “I don’t do ultra-long runs, since that just grinds them out, and I don’t do anything too short either. I try to maintain a medium, and I do the same with the terrain I train on. I try to do a mix of flat and hills. You’ve got to train hills if you want to do well in them, but that being said, it’s easy to burn dogs out with too much time in the hills. Also, the fastest team I ever had, back in 2004, that was a team that had only trained on flat ground and rivers around the Clear Sky area,” he said.Ramey said he also likes to compete in mid-distance races leading up to the Iditarod, but despite his frequent success in these undercard events, he only runs 200 or 300 mile races if he has enough cash. He said it isn’t often that he has enough green to risk taking away from his savings for the Last Great Race. However, Ramey took a chance the past two years to test a theory that a few Iditarod veterans have found success with, as his wife ran a team in the 1,000 mile Yukon Quest. In 2008, extreme cold forced Becca out early, but in 2009 she redeemed herself making it the whole way from White Horse, Yukon Territory to Fairbanks, finishing 17th out of 28 people who started the race.“In terms of Iditarod, it definitely did not help the team as a whole, but it did help a couple of individual dogs amazingly. Dogs that weren’t that strong, it really made a huge difference and helped them catch up to the others. My dog Queen is good example. She’s a 5 year old that I took to Iditarod four times and she never made it past Shaktoolik. This year she made it to Safety and I didn’t have to drop her there, but I mistook a snowmachine for another musher’s headlight. I thought it was going to be an all out run so I didn’t want to risk it based on her past. When I found out it was a snowmachine I was pissed I had left her behind. She could have made it,” he said.Like Ramey, Cim said he has struggled to find time to train while in the recent past working as an on-call emergency firefighter, and most recently while attempting to start his own game farm working with yak and reindeer. He said he has been fortunate to have close access to good trails near his home.“It’s pretty good training most of the year. We usually get fair snow, and it’s broken country around where I’m at, a mix of flat and small hills. I can get out to the Big Su in about 15 minutes. I’m not a high mileage guy. I don’t do a lot of 100 mile runs since they can slow the dogs down. I do a lot of 50’s, and I do get out and camp. I think that’s good for the dogs, but even when camping I don’t normally put long runs back to back,” he said.Cim said he also put emphasis on hardening his dogs, and it’s not uncommon for him to hook his team up to a 250 pound groomer and have them dig in to pull it at 4 miles an hour for distances of around 15 miles. Still, strength must be balanced with speed, and if there is one thing mushers fear when racing both Smyth brothers it’s their competition-crushing end of the race speeds. Between the two of them, they have won the Fastest Time From Safety to Nome award a combined six times. They both said they can’t fathom racing any other way.“I think it’s important for the dogs to keep some reserves. I think it’s irresponsible to run them to where they’re just walking. I save a little in the gas tank so if I get caught in a storm on the coast or if there’s an emergency and I have to save a life, I can ask them to make that push. It’s tough to find that balance, though. There’s 70 other people giving everything they’ve got, so racing to keep reserves against people going all out can put you at a disadvantage, but I’m also not in a financial position to risk blowing them up and scratching or coming in 50th,” Ramey said.“It’s also nice to pick up a few places at the end of a race,” Cim said. “I win by small margins, often pulling ahead in the last leg. That’s how it was in both the Klondike and the T-200. Iditarod is often the same. At the end you’re usually traveling in a group of four or five people, so having the team mentally and physically trained for a strong finish can make a big difference in your overall placement. It’s not something you want to do every day, since finishing training runs fast and hard can lead to injuries, but you have to practice it a bit.”Cim said, he believes in order to win the Iditarod, he has to train specifically for the Iditarod, something he has done as of late despite his continuing success in mid-distance races.“Conditioning the dogs for Iditarod is not the same as conditioning them for 200 and 300 mile races, and I think the conditioning for a 1,000 mile race is where I made the biggest changes and improvements the last couple of years. I’m hoping to win Iditarod, that’s what I’m in it for. It may not be next year, but hopefully it will be in the next two to three,” he said.Ramey said he is also hopeful about his future in the Last Great Race. He said “Babe is getting too old, but I have a lot of 2 and 3 year olds coming up, so if I’m careful and pay close attention to each individual dog, I should do good over the next couple of years. My intent is to do the best I can to win, and I’d like to think we’re getting dialed in, so now all I need is some good training weather and a little luck.”

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