Joar Leifseth Ulsom, the defending champion of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, says he’s ready to hit the 1,000-mile trail to Nome this weekend.
But before he goes, the Anchorage Daily News caught up with him Thursday to talk about his mushing career and the race ahead.
A little bit about Leifseth Ulsom: The 32-year-old musher is from Mo i Rana, a town in Norway near the Arctic Circle. He currently lives in Willow and has a 55-dog kennel. The calm, quiet musher has been a consistent top performer in the Iditarod. In his six previous races, his worst finish is seventh. Last year, he notched his first Iditarod victory.
Here’s what Leifseth Ulsom had to say Thursday afternoon, after the Iditarod’s mandatory mushers meeting in Anchorage, and in between bites of a piece of pizza.
(By the way: Leifseth Ulsom is his full last name. Leifseth is his mom’s last name and Ulsom is his dad’s. His parents got divorced, he said, “and I kind of just decided to keep them both to make them happy.”).
ADN: What’s life like as an Iditarod champion? Has winning the race changed your life in any way?
Leifseth Ulsom: I don’t think very many things have changed, no. It’s been a lot of fun and, yeah, I’ve just been enjoying it. I had some new sponsors jump on right before the race, and they’re stepping up this year, so it’s making it a lot easier. So there’s a lot of things happening, and I think it’s going to be good for the sport.
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ADN: How’d you get started mushing?
Leifseth Ulsom: I started skijoring with my neighbor’s dog when I was like 10, 12 years old. And I had a lot of fun with that, just going around the neighborhood and up in the mountain and backpacking with the dog. Then I got two dogs of my own that were supposed to be a breed between a husky and a malamute because I wanted big, strong dogs for hiking and carrying backpacks and stuff like that and then it turned out they were a breed between a husky and an English setter so they turned out to be really fast racing dogs and that’s kind of how I got started, and I got more dogs and started my own kennel in 2008.
(Leifseth Ulsom said he moved to Alaska in 2011. He ran the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race in 2012 and placed sixth. The next year, he completed his first Iditarod in seventh place, winning the rookie of the year award.)
ADN: With the 2019 Iditarod just days away, how are you feeling right now?
Leifseth Ulsom: I’m feeling very good. I’m super excited to get out on the trail on Sunday, to leave Willow and be out there again. So that’s what I look forward to now.
ADN: Do you get nervous at all before the race?
Leifseth Ulsom: All this stuff, and the banquet and stuff, it’s all the people, the show, makes me nervous. But once I’m out on the trail, I’m good.
ADN: Tell me more about your dog team for the 2019 Iditarod. How old are they and how many ran last year’s race?
Leifseth Ulsom: I think it’s going to be a lot of the same dogs as last year, maybe 11 or 12. (That includes Olive and Russeren, who led Leifseth Ulsom to victory in 2018).
I have some good dogs that (are) getting old on me, they’re 9 years old now, so I probably will leave them behind. But they’ve been training with me and I was kind of hoping to bring ‘em, but I think I’m going to put my cards on some younger ones. But I won’t have any dogs on my team under 3 years old, so that feels pretty good.
ADN: What language do you speak to your dogs in?
Leifseth Ulsom: It used to be all Norwegian. Now, after these years living here, it’s turning more over to English. But I still use the same commands: gee (right) and haw (left). I think the only thing I’m different on is I use the Norwegian word to start them... klare and for stop I use stå.
ADN: Are there any personality traits you look for when choosing the dogs for your Iditarod team?
Leifseth Ulsom: I like happy dogs that (are) a little feisty and yell at each other and stuff like that. Keeps it a lot of fun, you know, when you’re out on the trail and they get excited about small things or smelling something.
My dogs are very lively and all the people that meet me out on the trail, they make fun of me because all my dogs bark when they meet other teams.
That’s fun. They’re just dogs, you know.
ADN: This is your seventh Iditarod, what keeps you coming back to this race?
Leifseth Ulsom: I think it’s the greatest race, the greatest long race you can do. You have the Quest and you have the Finnmark race (the Finnmarkslopet), but just with the history of Iditarod and basically crossing the state there, (it) is really beautiful. And going through all the villages makes it a very special event, and I love the people in the villages and it’s just, the whole deal — so many people helping and volunteering so, for me, that makes it a very special event.
ADN: Do you have a go-to snack on the Iditarod Trail?
Leifseth Ulsom: I do. ... It’s a Norwegian cheese that I mix with some moose pepper sticks and that makes a real good calorie snack. And then I got a little, tiny, little bit of candy, some chocolate and nut mixes and stuff like that.
ADN: Aside from dog chores and mushing, do you do anything else to physically or mentally prepare for a 1,000-mile race?
I do some training on my own. ... I have a spinning bike and a little bit of weight lifting.
ADN: What’s your goal for this year’s Iditarod?
Leifseth Ulsom: To have fun.
ADN: Who’s your top competition this year?
Leifseth Ulsom: I think all the top teams from last year, and probably several teams that almost made the top 10 last year (are) going to be really prepared this year. It seems like a lot of people have been doing the job, and they’re going to go for it.