RAY (AP) -- Musher Keith Aili has had his eye on Alaska's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race for years.
He has acquired a team of dogs he believes could give him a Rookie-of-the-Year finish at one of the most demanding sled dog races. Now Aili faces one of the biggest challenges in his career -- finding about $20,000 in sponsorships to finance the trip.
Aili, 26, has spent the last 13 years training and breeding his Alaskan huskies with the eventual goal of running what's known as "The Last Great Race on Earth."
"I've got 16 equal ones," he said, explaining that the dogs all pull at an equal rate. "It takes many years to get that."
With 16 equal dogs for his prospective Iditarod team, Aili believes he'll have an edge over other competitors.
"Most teams that run the Iditarod don't have 16 equal. There's always three or four weak dogs that aren't as good as the rest," he said. "There are just a very few teams that do have 16 equals. And that's what you need."
Last month, Aili took two 16-dog teams out for an early morning, seven-mile run in front of an all-terrain vehicle from Wolf Ridge Kennel. The kennel is located at the home north of Ray that Aili shares with his 90 dogs, brother and fellow musher Kirk, and girlfriend, promoter, handler and prospective racer Jennifer Perrizo.
While running the Iditarod won't keep Aili from competing in other races in the lower 48, it does mean he will eventually begin a different style of training to prepare for dog sledding's premiere event. The Iditarod, held in March, covers more than 1,150 miles from Anchorage to Nome and takes from 10-17 days to complete.
"I've got to know in two months if I'm going or not," Aili said. "The first two months of training is all the same no matter what you race."
But that training strategy will change if Aili is successful in gaining the necessary funding to run the Iditarod.
"I'll start doing longer runs and a little bit slower," he explained. "Toward late winter before the race, I'll be training 150 miles straight through."
The training sessions will mirror how he would run the Iditarod. He'll cut the training miles in half and rest in between. "I'll run half and however long it took me to do the first half, that's how long I would rest," he said. "A 50-50 schedule for run and rest. That's the best way to keep speed through the Iditarod."
For shorter, 200- to 300-mile races -- Aili has typically placed among the top three winning teams in such events -- Aili will train his dogs by running shorter distances faster.
What will be the determining factor in whether Aili runs the Iditarod?
"Money," he responds with a wide smile. "That's all it is."
Aili said he's accomplished the goals he's set for competing in races in other states, leaving the Iditarod as his final objective. Finding the money to get to the race is difficult for a small-town boy who began mushing as a 13-year-old with his family's pet dogs and a red plastic sled.
"All the other guys running, that are in the top 10, get between $50,000 to $100 grand a year to run the race," he said. "It's just getting up there and getting in the top to get the sponsors. They've got the money to get up there."
Just getting himself, his team of 18-20 dogs and their food and gear, along with a couple handlers, to the start point is financially and logistically challenging for Aili.
"A lot of the money goes to the food drops that we have to fly out of Anchorage to all the checkpoints," he said. "That's not cheap. There's so many little things that add up, it's unbelievable."
The experience of being on an isolated trail in Alaska during the winter with only dogs as companions would be daunting for most people. But not Aili.
"It's enjoyable," he said. "That's exactly when I feel my best -- when I have nothing to worry about except taking care of my 16 dogs and myself. There are no other worries."
Aili predicted that it would be crucial on the Iditarod trail to keep his dogs running at a slow pace for the first 200-300 miles.
"The biggest challenge would be trying to keep them slowed down," he said, "to get into a rhythm. ... A lot of teams don't do well, they get antsy and they let the dogs run too hard and too fast and then they're pretty much shot."
Aili said he developed his team for the Iditarod by breeding and training dogs that will run fast enough yet also be able to pull at trot and middle speeds.
"They've got to be able to pull at every speed," he said. "On hilly and bad trail areas they may have to pull at 5 miles per hour. And on the flat, hard-packed trail I need a dog that can really motor."
Dogs that can sustain an ability to eat on the trail are also important, he said.
"And they need to have a good head, too," he added. "A lot of dogs are fine for 20-30 miles, but then they get tired and depressed. Those aren't good Iditarod dogs."
What makes a good Iditarod musher?
"A person who can go many days without hardly any sleep and make good judgment calls with your dogs," he said. "You're the one in charge and if you make a bad decision, it's all your fault."
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