FairbanksAlaska.com is following Allen Moore’s team from Skunk’s Place (SP) Kennel in Two Rivers as they train for and run the 2013 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. Allen operates a professional sled dog kennel with his wife Aliy Zirkle, veteran musher who, in 2000, became the first woman to ever win the Quest. Allen’s team placed second in 2012, just 26 seconds behind the champion. We’ll keep you up to date on Allen’s progress with his team from now until the start of the race as the Quest draws near. Then, we’ll catch up with Allen soon after the Quest and share the behind-the-scenes stories of how his team fared on the trail.
January is crunch time for dog mushers in Alaska with rookies rushing to prove themselves in qualifying runs while veterans jockey for favoritism from race fans and sponsors. It’s a musher’s last chance to scout opponents and make final decisions about which dogs will lead their team. The temperature often drops to the lowest point of the year, making for punishing training runs in the deep freeze, and injuries (to musher or dog) are unlikely to heal by race time.
Two weeks ago, the Black Team crossed the finish line of the Copper Basin 300 in Glennallen well ahead of 36 other registered teams. Allen beat the second place finisher by 26 minutes, the same integer (in seconds) by which he lost to Hugh Neff in the Quest last year. The race is one of Allen’s favorites, which made it all the worse when it was cancelled midway through the contest last year due to impassable trail conditions. “It’s got a lot of hills in it, which I like,” Allen says. “I like running up hills and post-holing.” (Post-holing is the act of breaking through knee or hip-deep snow while hiking or climbing.)
“The CB300 always has a challenging trail with incredible mountain summits, steep inclines, wet water crossings, waist deep overflow, ground blizzard conditions, and wind swept lakes,” Aliy Zirkle, professional musher and Allen’s partner at SP Kennel posted on their blog. “The timing of the race is perfect for a Yukon Quest musher and dogs—three weeks separate the two races [and]…the mountainous trail is similar to that of the Yukon Quest.”
It lets me know we have some good, healthy dogs and that’s the most important thing. We got through this 300 mile race and it was excellent and we don’t have any injuries.
While their finish wasn’t entirely unforeseen (the team has collected four championships in ten years of racing in the 300 mile punisher), the strategy for this year was one that is rarely employed in professional dog mushing. Slow and steady, in this instance, actually won the race. “I usually like to take a lot more rest at the beginning of the race,” Allen reports. “Conditions got worst after the first checkpoint and it came into my favor because [the race volunteers] broke the trail right in front of me.”
Racing in Glennallen gave Allen a better picture of the field as well as his own team’s ability to stack up, an invaluable metric since it’s likely that he’ll soon pass many of the same competitors on the Quest trail. “It lets me know we have some good, healthy dogs and that’s the most important thing. We got through this 300 mile race and it was excellent and we don’t have any injuries.”
Mush to the Finish
The next challenge lies in the Yukon Quest, but training a team to run 1,000 miles in one of the world’s toughest dog sled races starts long before the first snow flies. The carefully calculated routine must be adaptable to interim race cancellations, unusual weather patterns, or at worst, injuries.
“We normally start about the first of October, really working out,” Aliy says. “We try to work the dogs one day on and one day off. As the season gets longer, the mileage gets longer. Then the races start happening and it keeps progressing, just like leading up to the Super Bowl.”
In November and December, the Black Team runs about 50 miles a day. By January, the dogs are on runs of 100 miles and often travel to nearby training grounds like the White Mountains to seek out new terrain and unfamiliar trails. Aliy tracks the progress of each of the 38 racing dogs at SP Kennel on charts, recording weekly distances, trail conditions, and weather. To put it in accessible terms, a typical racing dog will run at least 2,500 miles before the Yukon Quest even begins and Allen spends 12-14 hours per day on a sled in the thick of training season.
“We’ll feed them real good and just baby and pamper them so they’ll be excited to get there.”
As the big day draws near, Allen makes last minute changes to his team and carefully calculates the frequency and distance of their final training runs. Many of the dogs who won the Copper Basin 300 will also be on the Yukon Quest trail, including, his lead dog, Quito. “We’ll feed them real good and just baby and pamper them so they’ll be excited to get there.”
In this race, Allen has at least one advantage that few mushers can replicate – the Yukon Quest trail passes within 40-50 miles of his kennel in Two Rivers. He’ll run his dogs to the finish on the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks prior to the race so that they’re comfortable with the final stretch and know exactly where to go.
Allen and Aliy will drive for twelve hours to reach Whitehorse in time for Meet the Mushers and final race checks, then the day before the Quest Allen will likely take his team out for an hour run to keep them loose and in shape. After that, the race is on. While he has no delusions about his chances, Allen is confident in the health and fitness of his team.
There are several teams in the Quest that will be right there with me, but we have to keep the healthiest dogs for the longest, that’s the main thing.
As Allen and the Black Team prepare to face Eagle Summit on the trail from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, fans can keep up with his progress at the SP Kennel Dog Log or through live tracking on the Yukon Quest website.
Amy is a freelance writer based in Fairbanks, Alaska. She doubles as a radio DJ and triples(?) as the Communications Coordinator at the Downtown Association of Fairbanks. Alaska has been good to her, and she aspires to return the favor.