MARQUETTE -In just one week, the U.P. 200 will kick off and roughly two dozen mushers will take to the Upper Peninsula trails.
And though getting ready for a race like the 240-mile U.P. 200 can be a bit daunting, preparation has become an art form for many mushers.
Musher Ryan Anderson, of Ray, Minn., Has won the U.P. 200 in each of the last two years. In the three years previous, he twice finished in third and took second once.
Kevin Malikowski of Outing, Minn., places booties on one of his dogs in preparation of the start of a recent U.P 200 Sled Dog Championship. Preparing the dogs for the grueling trail is essential, mushers say. (Journal photo by Andy Nelson-Zaleski)
Anderson, 30, starts his seasonal training runs on Oct. 1 and gradually increases the length and intensity of the runs for his dogs.
After spending weeks on the trails training with the animals, he often knows which of his 39 dogs are performing best.
"You have your top dogs," he said. "We're watching these dogs run for long enough miles that we know. We know which ones have performed the best and we know which ones have been the most consistent."
In the week or two leading up to a race, his training regimen becomes less intense as he wants to ensure the dogs are fully rested and 100 percent, physically.
He said the final decision on how much to taper the training will depend "on what I'm seeing in the dogs. They'll tell you what they need and what they don't need," Anderson said. "I need to make my decision based on what's best for them."
Regardless of whether he is racing or just training, though, the musher is always a bit surprised at what his dogs can do.
"I've got a huge amount of respect for the dogs as athletes," said Anderson, who has been racing since he was just 9 years old. "There are no better athletes in the world."
On that point, Anderson will get no debate from Iditarod and Yukon Quest champion Joe Runyan.
Runyan, who is serving as the head judge for this year's U.P. 200, raced for 13 years in the '80s and '90s.
He said he often tried to model his dogs' training after that of human athletes.
"I think I read a lot of Runner's World and tried to copy a lot of those distance running training plans," he said. "Many mushers have started to taper their dogs (prior to races)."
Often, he said, average training runs will stretch 60 to 70 miles. In the days leading up to a race, though, those runs may last for just 10 or 20 miles.
One of the largest shifts mushers must make is in the feeding of the animals. A typical dog would burn about 1,500 calories per day, according to Runyan.
"To get these dogs set up to do 100 miles a day, they're going to be burning 6,000 to 7,000 calories," he said.
In fact, in the roughly 17 years since Runyan stopped racing consistently, he thinks the biggest changes in the sport have come in the form of nutrition science.
"I think there's a lot of insight and real knowledge into how to feed the animals now," he said.
In their respective roles, both Runyan and Anderson will be prepared for the U.P. 200, which is scheduled to begin at 7:10 p.m. on Feb. 17.
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.