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For Iditarod rookies, some surprises and tough lessons

MCGRATH, Alaska -- Mushers. Best friends. Rookies.

Mike Ellis and Paige Drobny, both of Fairbanks, are used to talking dog racing together. For years both have trained in the same areas and run the same races. In preparation for their rookie Iditarod Sled Dog Race runs this year, they both talked shop. Ellis, with his team thick-coated pure-bred Siberian Huskies, and Drobny, with her team of speedier Alaskan huskies, planned different run and rest schedules for the race -- and, consequently, didn't expect to see much of each other.

Maybe they'd bump into each other during their 24-hour mandatory layover in McGrath.

Instead they arrived 20 minutes apart into Nikolai.

"We couldn't of had more different schedules," Drobny said. "We just kept leap-frogging past each other."

On Wednesday, the two were part of a back-of-the-pack group of about a dozen mushers resting in McGrath, a sleepy community of about 800 located on the banks of the Kuskokwim River. While more experienced teams push on to Takotna, a handful of rookies are stationed here, their dogs spread out in a circle around the checkpoint headquarters in the local library.

Mike Ellis was running several of his dogs back and forth in the lot. They were restless, sitting on their haunches, howling loudly amidst gray skies and light snowfall.

"I might have taken my 24 too early," Ellis allowed. "By 7 tomorrow (when Ellis is scheduled to leave) these guys are going to be climbing the walls."

Lessons like that are what rookie races are about. Drobny said she prepared by talking to Bruce Lee, the 1998 Yukon Quest champ and current Iditarod commentator.

She said Lee told her two things: Do the Dalzell Gorge in the daylight and take your 24-hour layover in Takotna.

She suspects it's good advice, but it's advice she isn't taking.

"It's just because of circumstances and the way it goes," Drobny said. "This is only the second or third checkpoint I've been in. I'm just figuring it out."

For many rookies, McGrath offers the first chance to have some serious sit-down time with other mushers. Even though there are more than 60 mushers on the trail, they seldom travel together. The rookies follow suit.

And for mushers who've traveled thousands of miles alone with their dogs, it's a perfect scenario.

Charley Benja, from Addison, Ill., said when he left Nikolai early Tuesday morning he was alone in the dog yard except for a few veterinarians and race officials.

"If you're back of the pack, it does get lonely," Benja said. "But you don't let that bother you. You just bootie your dogs and get ready to go when you're ready."

Benja said his main priority has been getting rest – not only for himself, but the dogs. He said he's had about two hours of sleep in every checkpoint. While he knows that doesn't put him ahead of anyone, he's not stressed. He figures two extra hours of rest are worthwhile if it keeps him awake on his sled. No point in falling off and spending hours finding a runaway dog team. Benja's only goal for his rookie race: finish.

"I just want to take my time and go at my own pace and pay attention to everything and learn everything I can," he said.

Louis Ambrose has more incentive to push a harder. His father-in-law, the late musher Jerry Austin of St. Michael, who finished 18 Iditarods, established the rookie-of-the-year award in 1981. Each year the Austin family donates the $2,000 rookie prize.

"My wife signs the checks, so I'd be really happy to win it," Ambrose said with a laugh.

Ambrose is being honest about his racing, though. He knows the competition is fierce, with other experienced rookies like Josh Cadzow of Fort Yukon and Joar Leifseth Ulsom of Norway all in serious contention for rookie of the year honors.

"We're definitely racing for it, but I'm not going to get carried away," Ambrose said.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com

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