Nicolas Petit of Girdwood took a break from his usual dog chores one chilly February afternoon in Kasilof, hoisted his furry friend over his head like a massive dumbbell and wrapped the warm body around his shoulders like a neck warmer.
"He goes everywhere with me," Petit said about Ugly, his lovable 13-year-old husky who belies his special name.
Thousands will gather in downtown Anchorage on Saturday to watch the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Many will be able to get an up-close look at mushers interacting with their canine counterparts that will journey roughly 900 miles north to Nome.
Among those dogs will be Ugly, Petit's 70-pound package of puff whose loyalty has served as his owner's inspiration to chase an Iditarod dream.
Though it would be entertaining to watch Ugly on a tow line, he will be without a harness. This charming ball of fluff may look like a strong, powerful sled dog but deep down he's just a spoiled old house dog.
"That's Ugly," said Petit. "He could go a few miles, then he'd just want to ride in the sled. He's a little too lazy, too fuzzy." Petit, who grew up in France but moved to the United States when he was a teenager, earned rookie of the year honors in the 2011 Iditarod and followed it with a 29th-place finish last year.
He gives Ugly credit for helping him earn some early mushing success.
Last year Petit raced the Iditarod with dogs taken from five different kennels. Ugly was able to buy Petit some time so he could learn all of their personalities.
"I had just borrowed these particular dogs and I didn't know who could lead, so Ugly was my leader for the first three weeks of training," Petit said.
"That helped me figure things out. Really, I attribute a lot to him." Petit was new to Girdwood when he picked Ugly from a litter of pups 13 years ago.
"He was the only puppy who was sleeping," he said.
Petit paid for him with a bag of Iams dog food. He said it's one of the best investments he has ever made.
"He's an awesome dog," Petit said.
Petit became known as "the guy with a dog named Ugly." Ugly cut his teeth as a wannabe sled dog by pulling Petit to the grocery store in a cheap Walmart sled. Ugly has also been known to take his master home from the bar.
"I'd put my pillow in a trash bag, sit down in the sled and just ride," Petit said. "He's not fast but he got us home eventually." Petit and Ugly have logged many miles on the pavement too, visiting 45 of the 50 states together. One year they hitchhiked from Anchorage to Seattle in just 3½ days.
"Ugly helped me get rides 'cause he's a nice dog," Petit said.
But what about all that hair? "I shaved him bald," he said.
One year Petit and Ugly traveled together to Wyoming, where Petit met Iditarod veteran Billy Snodgrass, the owner of Continental Divide Dog Sled Adventures in Jackson Hole. Snodgrass asked Petit if he knew how to ski or harness a dog.
Petit knew how to do both but he had never ridden on a dog sled.
Petit said Snodgrass told him, "Well, there's the sled and there's the dogs, so you better hurry because the tourists are almost here."
Ugly went on a few of those rides too.
"He was always the one who tourists wanted to go pet," Petit said. "Then I would have to explain why that's not really a sled dog." The experience in Wyoming sparked an interest in running dogs. Petit returned to Girdwood in search of a musher willing to give him an opportunity.
It wouldn't come easy, though. He knew that mushing was an expensive sport to pursue. But Petit told himself he wouldn't let finances stop him from pursuing a dream.
"Having money shouldn't be the only reason you get to (race dogs)," he said.
Petit connected with Dario Martinez, an Iditarod veteran who owns Girdwood's Chugach Express Kennel and Alaska Dog Sledding Center. Petit gained a year's worth of touring experience -- and a better appreciation for the sport.
He developed an appetite for competition, so in the fall of 2011, Martinez put him in contact with Iditarod veteran Jim Lanier of Chugiak.
Petit told Lanier upfront, "It would be great if I could get some (races) in 'cause I know I'll never do the Iditarod. It's just so expensive." The two of them began training together.
Things were going well until Lanier broke the news to Petit that he needed hip replacement surgery and could no longer put it off.
"How do you feel about doing the Iditarod this year?" Lanier asked him.
"What? That's not even possible," Petit said.
"I already talked to Iditarod," Lanier said. "You just have to make sure you qualify." Petit attended an Iditarod rookie meeting without ever having competed in a race. It was such a surreal moment he wasn't sure if it was really happening.
Reality finally hit, though, when he and Lanier finished the Sheep Mountain 100 that December.
"Have fun," Lanier told him. "They're all yours." Petit said Lanier demanded only one thing from him: Do not run in the back of the pack.
"So I told him, 'Yes sir,' " Petit said.
Petit followed his instructions by winning the Jerry Austin Rookie of the Year award. To say thanks, Petit shared part of his $2,400 in earnings with Lanier.
"The dogs knew where to go," Petit said. "I didn't have to tell them anything."
The following season, Petit put together another top 30 finish with a motley crew of dogs. He borrowed dogs from five mushers: Knik drivers Raymie Redington, Ray Redington Jr. and Ryan Redington, as well as Wade Marrs of Wasilla and Lanier.
Ray Redington said it wasn't an ideal situation but it was an inexpensive option that gave Petit valuable trail experience.
"If you like the sport, you do whatever you can to stay in it," Redington said. "The financial part is what gets a lot of people and I think he's doing better. I see him getting his own kennel and slowly getting to be on his own."
The act of borrowing, or leasing, a team isn't new to the sport. It can be the most practical way for someone interested in driving dogs to get a foot in the door.
Leasing can be extremely expensive, costing $15,000 to $20,000 a season. It puts mushers on the fast track to Nome without making that long-term investment of maintaining a kennel.
Borrowing, however, is something Petit has mastered thanks to the trust he built with Martinez and Lanier and the dedication he has shown.
Last summer, Petit proved he is serious about mushing by saving enough money from working construction to buy a used dog truck. He's been using the truck to train his Iditarod team, which belongs to Ray Redington's dad, 12-year Iditarod veteran Raymie Redington.
"I'm just trusted by Raymie to make his dogs look like a quality dog team," Petit said.
"I really appreciate what they're doing for me. The trust involved is huge."
By avoiding the cost of leasing dogs, Petit has lightened his Iditarod expenses, which can add up to as much as $20,000 for the entry fee, equipment, food, gas, airfare and other random costs.
"Joe Redington Sr. wanted people who love being with dogs to be able to participate in the race across Alaska without being a millionaire," Petit said, referencing the man beloved as the Father of the Iditarod.
Petit doesn't seek handouts. He believes in the credo "You scratch my back and I'll pat yours." The summer before last, he built a garage for Scott Janssen, the "Mushing Mortician," who owns a funeral home in Anchorage and financially helped Petit get on the Iditarod trail in 2011. Petit didn't charge Janssen a dime for the labor.
"I can't repay people as much as they give me," Petit said. "But I give what I can." Girdwood residents and establishments have given what they can as well. The Girdwood Boy Scouts, for example, make a donation every year to help Petit travel the trail.
"Without a lot of people's generosity, I wouldn't be here," he said.
Kevin Klott covered three Iditarod races for the Daily News.
Nicolas Petit race history
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