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A team of Olympic champions brings up back of Iditarod race pack

Jill Burke
The Iditarod's only five-time champion, Rick Swenson, crossing Rainy Pass on Monday, March 5, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Sigrid Ekran puts fresh runners on her sled during a rest stop at Puntilla Lake on Monday, March 5, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Lance Mackey keeps an eye on departing mushers while he prepares his team to leave Puntilla Lake on Monday, March 5, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
DeeDee Jonrowe heads out of Puntilla Lake towards Rainy Pass on Monday, March 5, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
A dog rests on Puntilla Lake on Monday, March 5, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
A musher heads towards Rainy Pass on Monday, March 5, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Bucky Winkley takes his 1924 Ford Model T snow machine out for a ride on Puntilla Lake on Monday, March 5, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
A musher and their team traverse Rainy Pass Lake on Monday, March 5, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Jeff King relaxes during a rest stop at Puntilla Lake on Monday, March 5, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Lance Mackey prepares his team to leave Puntilla Lake on Monday, March 5, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Dogs in John Baker's team rest at the Puntilla Lake checkpoint on Monday, March 5, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
John Baker keeps an eye on Lance Mackey while putting booties on his dogs at Puntilla Lake on Monday, March 5, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
John Baker's dog Ripple takes advantage of every last second of sleep, even while getting fresh booties put on.
Loren Holmes photo
The Iditarod's only five-time champion, Rick Swenson, approaching Rainy Pass on Monday, March 5, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
A musher heads out of Puntilla Lake on Monday, March 5, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
A musher heads out of Puntilla Lake on Monday, March 5, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
DeeDee Jonrowe heads out of Puntilla Lake towards Rainy Pass on Monday, March 5, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
A musher and their team approaching Rainy Pass on Monday, March 5, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
A musher and their team approaching Rainy Pass on Monday, March 5, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
An Iditarod dog-sled team approaching Rainy Pass during a snowstorm on the evening of Monday, March 5, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Sigrid Ekran puts fresh runners on her sled during a rest stop at Puntilla Lake on Monday, March 5, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo

RAINY PASS -- Iditarod rookie Matt Failor has a message for the Flying Tomato. He wants the red-headed Olympic snowboarder Shaun White to know there's a young dog driving deep into the Alaska wilderness named for him.

Failor, 29, hoped to let White know about his elite canine, who's racing in the so-called Super Bowl of sled-dog races, before gliding out of Willow and into his first-ever Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, a nearly 1,000-mile late winter race across Alaska. But Failor isn't a part of the Twitter generation, a must, he discovered, if you're trying to track down the wild-haired snowboarder.

Shaun White the canine, who also has red hair, didn't have an appetite for breakfast after pulling in here early Tuesday morning. Horses had wandered close to another dog team sleeping near lakeside trees, and Failor's dogs yelped, yipped and bounced at the sight -- an Iditarod equivalent of a noisy, early-morning rooster call signaling the start of another day.

Rosey Fletcher, Kikkan Randall, Lindsey Vonn and Michael Phelps, the largest male in the litter born during the Olympics, also weren't interested in morning snacks. It's a common obstacle with puppies, Failor said. They don't always want to eat when a musher needs them to and on Tuesday many preferred sleep to the beef-and-kibble gruel Failor had prepared.

"It's a chore to get the younger ones to eat," he said as sun rays found his sled and sleeping team, shooing away the darkness he'd followed into the valley. Feeding wet, feeding dry, feeding in a bowl, feeding on the ground --  mushers have an array of methods to entice their dogs to eat. For Failor, letting the gruel freeze into thin layers and serving them up like large potato chips turned the trick.

Salmon and fatty beef round out the menu for Failor's young dogs. Not on the approved list? Moose. "We don't want them to know what moose tastes like," said Failor, who trains in Big Lake. "There are so many of them back home, they might want to eat them."

The dreaded Steps

Coming through the dreaded Happy River Steps, Failor nearly tipped over. He might have if a high snow wall hadn't guided him upright and back onto the runners. Other than that moment, the snake-like section of trail was fun, giving Failor the chance to drive the sled instead of just standing on it letting the dogs do all the work.

Deep ruts carved by more than 60 mushers who arrived before Failor created a surface so narrow and uneven that he needed to do some acrobatics. With one foot solidly on the brake in the middle of the runners, and the other "skiing" in the snow off to the side for stability, there were times when the gap between his legs spanned several feet. Getting through meant driving in the "crane" position made famous by actor Ralph Macchio in the original 1984 "Karate Kid" movie -- balanced on one leg with the other pulled up to chin level. But Failor executed it while driving a sled through one of the Iditarod's most treacherous sections of trail.

Championship puppies

Failor is introducing a team of puppies from the kennel of four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser of Big Lake to the trail.  He met his boss through another Iditarod veteran, Matt Hayashida. Failor works for Hayashida during the summer in Juneau, giving dog sled tours.

Failor's rookie dogs are all about 2 years old -- some younger, some a few months older. The four girls and 12 boys will spend more time sleeping than running. Like his mushing mentor, Failor is driving the team with a set, run-rest schedule. Because puppies need more rest than racers in their prime, Failor is restricting his team to running just 40 percent of the time.

For now, Failor intends to stop at every checkpoint, resting for as long as the run took plus an extra two to three hours. If the dogs are doing well by the time the team hits the Bering Sea coast, he may consider shaving rest. He's hoping to cross the finish line with all 16 dogs. So far, so good. Only one dog is showing signs of wear -- a sore bicep -- but seems to be doing well.

During their Iditarod immersion, each puppy will get a chance to run lead.

In the early stages of the race, Failor has already noticed changes. The dogs have more swagger. More strength. More bounce. "Coming up the hills they were barking for no reason and pulling me up the hills," he said.

They develop rapidly.  The stronger they get, the more exercise they need.

"It's like a monster you have to keep feeding and if you don't give it what it wants, it just destroys things," Failor said, adding that with no outlet for pent up energy, dogs have been known to chew up houses or get into fights.

Failor, who turns 30 on Saturday, can't wait to see what comes next for his energetic athletes-in-training.

"They are basically growing up before my eyes," he said.

He thought it'd be fun if Olympic snowboarder Shawn White could be in Alaska for the start of the race. But who knows. With the power of Twitter, maybe he'll make it to the finish line to cheer himself on under Nome’s famed burled arch.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com