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One Rookie, One Veteran, Both Competing with ‘A-Team’ Dogs

Tim Pappas and Matt Failor Work on Tims' Runners in Nikolai. Photo: Davis Hovey, KNOM (2020).

All of the 2020 Iditarod teams are unique, but this year both Sean Underwood, a rookie, and Tim Pappas, a veteran, have the same opportunity to run what would be considered other mushers’ dogs.

KNOM’s Davis Hovey spoke with these two mushers about their insights into the four-legged animals they’re traveling behind.

On a sunny, crisp afternoon in Nikolai, Veteran musher Tim Pappas clears out the bottom of his runners so he can replace the plastic on his sled. Pappas says this is necessary as he hit some rough trail during a 75-mile stretch coming into the checkpoint.

“I’m just putting on some new runner plastics on. We went through some rocks in the Burn (Farewell Burn), there was a little bit of gravel and stuff. So, they got scuffed up and I’m going to replace them.”

Overall though, Pappas says it’s been about what he expected thus far, a good trail. To adjust for the various conditions each stretch of trail can present, Pappas has been switching between his leaders during the first 250 miles of the race.

“So right now I have K2 and Beans. Beans is probably the ultimate, super leader. K2 just loves being up there too.”

Pappas has a pretty good knowledge of his team and their personalities. He chuckled as he said he knows this team about as well as anyone. The irony is, these dogs aren’t his. Technically, they belong to four-time Iditarod champion, Martin Buser.

As an apprentice under Buser, Pappas has spent several years training with these championship dogs. This year, he was offered the opportunity to actually run the Iditarod with Buser’s A-team, and it took him some time before he decided to accept.

After half a year working with this team, and running about 300 miles into this 1,000-mile race, Pappas isn’t sure if he’s got what it takes to finish in the top ten, but remains optimistic.

“I don’t really like to throw out numbers, but yeah, I’m going to do as good as I can, and we’re going to go at our own pace and see where that gets us.”

– Tim Pappas

“I just want to keep them looking the way they have been looking the whole race, which is …strong, and solid, and fast.”

– Sean Underwood

Rookie musher Sean Underwood, who learned he would be running in his first Iditarod with Jeff King’s team days before the race start, isn’t looking to finish in a specific position.

“My goal is to just have fun and finish with a dog team that looks awesome. So here we are, 15% of the way in, mission accomplished, we’ve got a while to go, though…”

Underwood may be new to this race and trail, but his dog team is not. The bond between sled dogs and their musher involves a give and take, which requires trust from both. In this case, Underwood says, he’s putting a lot of his trust in his team.

“That sleep deprivation hits me, and I kind of zone out and zone back in 30 minutes later, and we’re still on the trail without me paying attention, so they know the way. Plus there’s been a couple of weird moments where it might have been they saw wildlife, but I think it’s that they’ve got a part coming up that they’re excited about, that they’ve done before. Like right before we got to the end of the Gorge (Dalzell Gorge) they started pulling me twice as hard and I was wondering what’s going on.”

The rookie from Atlanta, Georgia, known for his big hair, would go on to say that if we could ask the dogs, they’d probably view him as the one they know best, not just a replacement on the runners.

Both Underwood and Pappas are currently taking their 24-hour layovers in Takotna.

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