Gebhardt brings experience to race

Posted: Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Mushers who have competed with Kasilof-based Paul Gebhardt have a saying: "It's not a matter of if he'll win the Iditarod, it's more a matter of when."

And although this may not be the year he crosses under the burled arch in Nome first, he's hoping not to be far behind whoever does.

"Obviously, I always set our goals to get to a point to win it, but we're about a year away from having a team mature enough to win it," Gebhardt said.

The 48-year-old knows it'll take a lot to eventually pull off a win, but Gebhardt is no stranger to working hard and overcoming adversity.

He ran his first Iditarod in 1996, finishing in 26th place — an impressive final standing for a rookie. But he suffered tragedy the next year when during a training run, a moose charged his team stomping his leader to death and injuring several other dogs in the process.

"It was devastating," he said.

Not only an emotional loss, but a tough setback to his racing career.

However, much like the work he does as a year-round contractor, Gebhardt rebuilt.

He came back and finished 14th in 1997, 13th in 1998 and, for his first time, broke the Top 10 barrier with a sixth-place finish in 1999.

He then hard-charged his way so close to victory in the 2000 Iditarod that he could taste it, when he finished second after leading much of the race.

Gebhardt then slipped back to fifth in 2001 and sold most of his team for a brief hiatus.

"We just wanted to focus on family and do a few things before our daughter left home, so we downsized," he said.

From those few dogs he kept as breeding stock, he rebuilt his Morning View Kennel and returned to the Last Great Race in 2003 with a 23rd-place finish.

Currently, he's back up to 56 dogs, 28 of which are trained — the rest are still puppies yet to be harness trained.

He finished 19th last year, accomplishing the goal he set for himself of being in the top 20. This year will be Gebhardt's ninth Iditarod, and he's shooting for the Top 10.

"That's the goal we set at the beginning of the year, and we're sticking to it," he said.

However, unlike many top finishers who are full-time mushers, Gebhardt has to train dogs around his contracting schedule.

"It's nice having a steady income, but it can be a detriment to training. I've got to meet a building inspector in the morning, while other mushers are probably packing for the race," Gebhardt said a few weeks before Iditarod.

Also, compared to mushers who have the time to run several smaller teams or 14 to 16 dogs, Gebhardt often is forced to run larger teams of 20 at the end of the day in order to put on training miles.

"That many dogs can be a lot of power. You wouldn't want to get dragged behind that many," he said.

In addition to the training hardships, Gebhardt's team is still young in regard to tackling the task ahead of them.

"People get tired of hearing about puppies, but other than my leader — Red Dog — the oldest dog in my team is 4, with most begin 2 to 3 years old," he said.

However, he said his youngsters already have shown a lot of potential.

"They're direct offsprings of the team I had in 2000, and they're already as good as the team I had that year, when my average dog age was 5," he said.

Gebhardt's only real concern, he said, is that he has less lead dogs in his team now, compared to 2000.

"I don't have the front end I had back then yet. I'm still making leaders out of the young guys," he said.

He described the dogs he has as "hard core," though.

"I think they are capable of a Top-10 finish. As long as the run is clean, no one gets sick and there are no other problems, we should be able to do it."

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