Iditarod fast fact:
Brian O'Donoghue ('91) holds the distinction of being the only musher to ever start first and finish last.
Paul Gebhardt knows how tough it is to be on top.
After taking sixth place in last year's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the 43-year-old knows it will be difficult to continue moving up the finish order.
"It's harder to go forward from there," he said.
Even knowing he will have little room for error on the 1,158-mile trail, Gebhardt thinks his chances of clearing the new burled arch first are pretty good.
"I don't have the rookie jitters anymore," said this year's Cooper Basin 300 winner. "I'm driving the best team I ever have. I've gained a lot of knowledge."
The competition considers Gebhardt a likely threat as well.
Jeff King, a three-time winner, came in just behind Gebhardt in 1999.
"Anybody who's beaten me is a contender," King said. "He beat me soundly last year. He had a wonderful Iditarod.
"He's a great guy," he added. "I'd love to see him weasel his way in there."
Jon Little, like Gebhardt, trains in the Caribou Hills. He said he thinks Gebhardt is as likely to win as any of the entrants.
"If the luck falls his way, he will win it," Little said. "He's a guy who's steadily worked his way up the ladder and he's near the top."
Gebhardt said his team is essentially the same as from last year's Iditarod and features four strong leaders.
"That's my main strength," he said, "the quality of my leaders."
Little is so impressed by Gebhardt's leaders, he said he wants to breed his main leader, Kazaan, with Gebhardt's, Red Dog.
When the two mushers competed together in this season's Kuskokwim 300 in January, Little was paying special attention to how Red Dog reacted at the end of the race.
"That dog was smiling. He was happy," Little said.
Although he's raced the Iditarod only four times, Gebhardt said he has learned a lot and hopes to put the information to use.
"I think I've gotten more efficient on the checkpoints, which is really big," he said. "I've learned where and when to rest, where and when to push hard.
"I've learned to read my dogs better and better every year."
Gebhardt said active mushing and knowledge have to play a big part in any Iditarod strategy because the elite dog teams are all closely matched.
"All the teams are getting so equal," he said. "It makes for a better race."
He credited this to good nutrition, good breeding and awareness of what other mushers find success with.
"People are really paying attention to what the top guys are doing," Gebhardt said.
One thing setting Gebhardt apart from most mushers is his sleds, which he builds himself.
"It gives me the option to experiment with them a little bit," he said. "It allows me to change the design without having to try to explain it to someone else."
Over all, though, Gebhardt said he is prepared to work hard on the trail.
"I think it'll probably be my most challenging (Iditarod)," he said. "I want to move forward, but it just gets tougher and tougher.
"Barring any bad circumstances, my team and I should do fine."
Gebhardt did feel confident enough to make a prediction on the race.
"First one to Nome wins," he said wryly.
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