Iditarod bridesmaid eyes winner's circle

Posted: Wednesday, February 28, 2001

No doubt you have heard of him, the media is always buzzing about how he has improved steadily, year-after-year in every Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race he has competed in.

More than likely you have even seen him, too, even if the only place you visit is Blockbuster Video, his picture is up by the door on your way out.

His name is Paul Gebhardt. His game? Mushing -- of course.

"I race because it is what I want to do," Gebhardt said. "I don't do it because I think I am going to get rich out there, I do it because I like to."

In his racing career, the Kasilof musher has become a leading contender in the Last Great Race, finishing consistently better each year. In 1996, Gebhardt's first year on the Iditarod Trail, he and his team finished 26th but jumped ahead into 14th the next year.

In 1998, Gebhardt's team raced to a 13th-place finish before they pounded out a sixth place finish in 1999. The year 2000 saw him hold the lead for much of the race before back-to-back champion Doug Swingley took the win.

But what of this year's race, which begins Saturday in Anchorage? Will Gebhardt's status be upgraded to victor?

"I think anyone with a competitive nature goes out to win every race they enter," Gebhardt said. "I am definitely looking to win. It is the ultimate success. Obviously my team is capable of winning, and I have the knowledge to win. Put it together and we have a good chance of pulling it out."

In a year that has dished up injuries to both Gebhardt and his team, including his favorite leader, Red Dog, the perennial front-runner says that he will do what he always does -- run according to what his dogs run.

"With the weird weather this year the conditions are going to stink again," Gebhardt said. "Unless the jet streams change, it is going to be a warm start. I am going to run with my dogs, watching them and push according to them -- that's the best we can do."

According to one Kenai Peninsula musher, the bond between Gebhardt and his team just might give him the edge in a year of possibly strange conditions.

"I have a medium fast team and Dean (Osmar) has a fast team -- Paul has the combination of strength and speed, he and his dogs get along great," Iditarod veteran Jon Little said."They can go through anything. Paul and Red Dog are connected brain to brain, they know what each other are thinking and wanting to do. If there is any kind of soft trail, I just know that Paul can go through the rough stuff."

The 44-year-old Kasilof musher has many views on the sport of sled dog racing, but Gebhardt's most outspoken view is that there is no room for intimidation -- only fun.

"That feeling (intimidation) doesn't cross my mind, and I hope that I am not instilling that feeling in anyone else," Gebhardt said. "We are all supposed to be out there having fun, having a good time. That is why this sport is different than any other one."

With his two top-15 finishes and his two top-10 years, Gebhardt is likely to be watched closely by his fellow competitors. Will he live up to his consistent year-after-year better finish?

"There are people saying Paul has some dinged up dogs, and I think they are in for a rude awakening," Little said. "I think anyone is a fool to not count Paul as a contender. A lot of people will be looking at him as a team to beat."

Gebhardt agrees that he will probably have a lot of competitors watching him throughout the race, something he says is a compliment.

"We are one of the teams to beat," he said. "Actually, it is a compliment to have people feel that they have to beat me to do well. That means that people have given me respect in the mushing world for me to be considered a contending force."

With all of the competition that will be hitting the trail against him, Gebhardt knows that he is not the only expected front-runner.

"I haven't seen Swingley's team, but obviously his reputation precedes him, and he almost always has a hell of a team of dogs," Gebhardt said. "(Rick) Swenson has a really, really nice team, but I think Jeff (King), out of the teams that I have seen, is the team to beat. He is a tough competitor. All I can say is 'don't let him get in front of you.'"

Even with an Achilles' tendon Gebhardt tapes before he goes out and a team of veteran Iditarod finishers that have not seen the trail with so many injuries and may not be in as good condition as past years, the Kasilof musher says he can still be successful.

"I think that as long as we finish we have won," Gebhardt said. "I don't think that we can't win. What I am looking for is a nice, clean run with the team of dogs that I got.

"If we happen to win on the way, great. If not, I will be satisfied with the way we perform."

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