Musher Rob Cooke collected an unexpected red lantern for finishing last in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race earlier this month, but now has his sights set on becoming the first Siberian husky team to finish both that race and the Iditarod in the same year.
"We're never going to win Iditarod, but we can do very well," he said in a telephone interview from his home outside of Whitehorse, Yukon, on Thursday.
Siberian teams, with their heavy coats and thick builds, aren't known for breaking speed records and are a novelty in a sport dominated by Alaskan Huskies. But Cooke, 48, who has been racing the breed since the 1990s, isn't new to mushing, either. He finished his first Yukon Quest in 2013 and will be one of 20 rookies in this year's Iditarod. He figured why not try both races in the same year.
"(I) thought it could be another challenge we could try," Cooke said.
For decades, it was unheard of for mushers to attempt both 1,000-mile sled dog races mere weeks apart. That barrier was squashed by champion racer Lance Mackey, who not only went on to complete both races in the same year, but to win them both multiple times. Now the mushing double is fairly common, especially among competitive teams.
Cooke was still recovering from the Quest when reached Thursday. He had a flu and was hoping to recuperate before heading to Anchorage for the ceremonial Iditarod start next week.
He was also reassessing some of his Quest moves. Cold weather early in the 1,000-mile race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks caused him to "make mistakes" with his race plan that left him demoralized. He said at times he thought the dogs were moving slowly, but that was mostly his mindset. He actually posted fast run times between checkpoints, especially toward the end of the race.
He's confident that his team will do well in Iditarod. With this season's whacky weather, he does have concerns about warm weather during the race. With their heavy coats, the dogs perform best in low temperatures.
Last year, fellow Siberian racer Mike Ellis attempted to finish both races in the same year, but ended up scratching from the Quest. He went on to place 40th in the Iditarod.