This article by Lex Treinen was originally published by Alaska Public Media. It was republished with permission through a partnership with KNOM.
On a foggy day in Big Lake just a week before the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, musher Kelly Maixner pulled dogs out of their kennels for a final set of training runs.
He’ll run the dogs for 40 miles or so before returning home in time for his kids’ talent show. Then, it’s back on the trails for another run or two through the night before making his final dog selection for the Iditarod, which starts Saturday in Anchorage.
Maixner, a pediatric dentist and father of five, said he has a bit of a problem: too many fast dogs to choose from.
“I gotta choose two of the eight, so it’s very tough decision-making right now,” he said.
They’re not just any dogs either. The dogs belong to five-time Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey, who placed second with them last year but isn’t competing this year so he can spend more time with his family.
Maixner hasn’t ever finished in the Iditarod’s top 10, but he’s hoping the elite Seavey dogs can propel him to the front of the field. There’s stiff competition: This year’s 1,000-mile race has just 33 starters, the smallest field ever, but they include nearly all of last year’s top teams.
Maixner said he’s planning a race that he hopes puts him in the top 10. He thinks there’s a benefit to his position: He has a world-class dog team but not the immense pressure of being an Iditarod favorite.
“There’s some pressure there, I suppose,” he said. “But I don’t really feel it.”
The pressure this year falls clearly on reigning champion Brent Sass.
“I’m the one with the big target on my back,” said the 43-year-old musher. “I’m excited to see who steps it up and who runs me over.”
Sass is racing with most of last year’s champion dogs. He said even without Dallas Seavey, the competition this year will be fierce.
Top contenders include Nic Petit, back after sitting out last year with a COVID-19 infection, Danish musher Mille Porsild whose Iditarod aspirations were cut short last year by equipment malfunctions, and Jessie Royer, the Montana musher and horse wrangler back after a year-long break. There’s also former champion Pete Kaiser of Bethel who screamed to his 7th Kuskokwim 300 win in January, and Dan Kaduce, the relatively unknown musher from Chatanika who finished in fourth place in last year’s Iditarod.
Sass said he knows plenty of teams are after him, but last year’s win also gave him confidence.
“When you win the Iditarod it’s the top of the food chain,” he said. “I think the biggest change is I came out of it going, ‘In the last 10 years I did figure something out, I did learn something from all the mistakes I made.’”
Sass had a low-profile season aside from winning the 550-mile Yukon Quest race in Fairbanks with most of his Iditarod A-Team. He finished in the back half of the pack in the Kusko 300. He placed second in the Copper Basin 300, behind Petit, and second in the Knik 200 to Eddie Burke Jr., an Iditarod rookie this year. In the trio of shorter races, Sass ran a team of mostly 1- and 2-year-old dogs he’s trying to train up as his next generation.
Sass said he also has a sentimental motivation for finishing strong in the upcoming Iditarod: It might be the last race for his longtime leader, 7-year-old Slater. Sass called Slater the best sled dog he might ever drive.
“It’s a dog that will just never stop,” he said.
Other mushers running top dog teams: Eddie Burke is racing with veteran musher Aaron Burmeister’s dogs and Christian Turner is racing with three-time champion Mitch Seavey’s dogs.
“I’m no Dallas and I’m no Mitch,” said 34-year-old Turner. “But I’m going to do the best I can. If I’m in that position, I’ll just keep trying my hardest and hopefully reach Nome as quick as the dogs can, whether it’s in first, second or 15th.
Turner worked on Seavey’s kennel years ago, and then reached out to the musher on a lark after he saw a Facebook post that he wasn’t competing this year. The Australian, who last ran the Iditarod in 2015 before moving back to his home country, said he convinced his wife to let him take leave from his 5-month-old daughter for a few weeks to get ready.
He had an unconventional route to preparing physically for the race: working construction and surfing on the beaches of Australia. Once he got the confirmation from Seavey, he said, he got a little more serious.
“Once I knew I was coming I was doing multiple kilometers on a bike or running just to get that fitness level up,” he said.
While Turner took a vastly different route to his Iditarod, last year’s third-place finisher Jessie Holmes is following a similar guidebook to Sass, living on a remote homestead where he can bond with his dogs unbothered by the distractions of more populated parts of the state. Holmes, 41, lives off the Denali Highway in Brushkana. He said the off-grid lifestyle helps him forge a close bond with his team.
“One thing I’ve done with the dogs this year, if I have to go to town, if I have to go shopping, it usually takes a couple days, I mush my team outta here,” he said. “I will not be away from this team.”
Sass lives off the Elliot Highway near Eureka, about a three-hour drive from Fairbanks.
Holmes said he ran an “ultra-conservative” race schedule last year with mostly young dogs and cruised to third place.
Aside from their rustic lifestyles, Holmes and Sass have another bond. Last year, Holmes had invited Sass to help Alaska coastal communities rebuild after Typhoon Merbok devastated the region. As he tore down a storm-damaged home, a wall collapsed, trapping him. Sass was the first to the scene.
“When somebody saves your life, when they’re the first face you see, when you’re getting dragged out of a near death situation, you look at them differently,” he said.
Holmes broke his right wrist and a couple ribs. His wrist was too tender to drive a sled until November, and he lost 15 pounds from his already lean body. Still, he said, the experience motivated him to run his team for more miles than he ever has during Iditarod training, and he’s hoping they reach the Nome finish line as a top team.
“I thought about telling Brent, ‘Bring your board shorts, we’re going surfing, you’re making a wave and I’m gonna catch onto it with you,’” he said.
He said he’ll be happy if he manages to beat Sass. But more than that, he’s just happy to be alive and running dogs.
Image at top: Five-year-old Lulu, one of Kelly Maixner’s daughters, helps ready his team for a final training run. Photo by Lex Treinen, Alaska Public Media.