‘Last Great Race’ beckons local musher | AspenTimes.com

‘Last Great Race’ beckons local musher

Dale Shrull
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
Bill Pinkham's sled dogs race through the snow during a practice run on Four Mile Road near Sunlight Mountain Resort, outside of Glenwood Springs. (Kara K. Pearson/Post Independent)

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. ” It’s cold, zero degrees, maybe less.

Bill Pinkham rubs his hands together, generating some heat.

Maverick is shivering a little as he waits patiently to have his booties put on.

It was a bitterly cold morning a few miles beyond Sunlight Mountain Resort. A little after 8 a.m.

“This isn’t cold. Forty below is cold,” Pinkham says nonchalantly.

He should know.

One by one, Pinkham slips the tiny booties on 72 little paws. The team is preparing for a 40-mile training run.

One sled, one musher, 18 dogs and 40 miles.

A training run to prepare them for the ultimate sled-dog race.

On March 3, Pinkham and his canine teammates will embark on an adventure that’s known as “The Last Great Race.” More than 1,100 miles through the barren, desolate, unmerciful Alaskan backcountry. Mushers and their sled-dog teams will follow the trail first created to bring supplies and and mail to the miners who followed the gold rush to the town of Iditarod.

This will be Pinkham’s fifth Iditarod.

“I’m hoping to do a lot better than I have in the past,” he says slipping a bootie on Dylan.

Dylan and Maverick are the lead dogs.

Dog racing is about experience and putting together a good group of dogs. Pinkham says this is his best team. It will also be his largest.

“I’ve never left here with more than 16 dogs and they weren’t necessarily all solid dogs. Right now I’m training 19 and they’re all pretty solid dogs,” he says.

The maximum number of dogs for the Iditarod is 16 but the larger group gives Pinkham more options when it comes to selecting his final team.

Pinkham and the dogs have been training for more than six months. He left for Alaska in late January. Last year he went up early and did a 300-mile race. It was cold ” Pinkham cold: “47 below.”

“Thirty below is OK but if it’s windy, then you’re in trouble,” he says.

Going early is all about getting acclimated to the harsh Alaskan conditions.

The winner and the main leaders usually finish in around nine days. Pinkham admits that he won’t be among the contenders but he hopes to take a full day off his time. Last year he finished in 11 days.

Sasha, who Pinkham named after his niece (Carly and Mia are named after his other two nieces), isn’t eager to come out of her little hay-filled cubbie.

“Come on out. I know your feet hurt but I got booties,” Pinkham says, coaxing Sasha.

Pinkham’s beard and mustache are crusty with ice and the inevitable result of a running nose. He jokes that he wants to shave off his mustache but his girlfriend will have none of that.

A few dogs are yelping with excitement, but most are waiting. It’s been a long, tiring time lately. Lots of training.

“Speed, strength, heart, recovery,” Pinkham explains what makes for a good sled dog.

The same attributes of any endurance athlete.

“These dogs (Alaskan huskies) have a lot of attitude. That’s what they’re bred for and they don’t want to stop,” he says.

Pinkham talks to each dog as he slips the booties on. Most of the dogs love to have their butts scratched and turn to make it convenient.

“They’re real social. They all have different personalities. Some are shy, some are standoffish.”

Pinkham knows that some people aren’t fans of the sport. He says he has no intention of debating them on the subject.

“These dogs love to run. (Skeptics) aren’t around to see all the positives.”

Dogs have died during past Iditarods, but Pinkham says that a few irresponsible people shouldn’t reflect on all the mushers.

“There is always an exception, someone who doesn’t take care of their dogs then we all get a bad rap.”

Mushers are required to take two 8-hour stops and one mandatory 24-hour stop in the race.

“These dogs do it because they want to. You take care of them and they trust you,” he says as an eager 2-year-old tries to lick Pinkham’s face.

“No licking,” he says calmly.

At 48, Pinkham says he’s learned how to relax more. Maybe it took a quarter of a century in Colorado for that to happen. Born in the Washington D.C. area and growing up in New Jersey, Pinkham was always the adventuresome type. The kind of adventure he was searching for wasn’t back East.

“I grew up in New Jersey but I knew I wasn’t suppose to live there,” he says, smiling.

Arriving in Aspen in 1980, he embarked on a 20-year rugby career that took him all over the world. Then in the late 1990s he went to work for

Krabloonik, the Snowmass Village dog sledding company. These days, he resides between Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, pursing the adventure that would shape his 40s.

When he departed New Jersey, Pinkham admits that there was little planning. No job, no blueprint, no rules.

“I’ve never been the type of person who had to have everything in place before I did something. I’m a little more like that now, I guess that comes with age,” he says with a smile.

When he started mushing, he admits to being too structured about everything. A bit of a contradiction to his younger years.

A failed marriage was one of the costs of his mushing passion.

“It just didn’t work out,” he says flatly.

Now, he’s learned to take things more in stride.

“I’ve tried to relax more, enjoy the journey a little more.”

Mushing isn’t for everyone. It takes a kennel, sponsorships, time, effort, desire …

Mushing through the Alaskan backcountry through frigid, unimaginable temperatures, isn’t something many people can comprehend. Pinkham isn’t about to offer an explanation on why he does it.

“I can’t really explain it. If people don’t understand it, I can’t say anything to make them understand. Why do people do whatever they do?” He says blowing on his cold hands.

A case of bad frostbite in the past cost Pinkham the tip of one finger and a pinkie that’s still very sensitive.

“It’s just passion. It seems crazy and a lot of work, and it is. I can’t explain to people what’s it’s like to do this because there’s no way to know what it’s like unless you do it. I’m never going to understand what’s like to give birth or being in a war,” he says.

Once the Iditarod gets under way, sleep will be fleeting.

“I sleep on the sled a lot less than I used to,” he says with a big smile.

One time a tree branch popped him as he was nodding off, knocking him off the sled.

Pinkham says the Iditarod is indescribable. “The start is pretty incredible.”

Thousands come out to see the ceremonial start in Anchorage. The trek ends in Nome.

‘The first year (arriving in Nome) I didn’t want to stop, I wanted to keep going, I was really enjoying it. The last few years have been a struggle and things haven’t gone that well, so it was a relief (to finish). Then you start thinking about next year,” he says.

As he starts to hook up each pair of dogs, the chorus of yelping, barking and howling increases.

Pinkham says pairing up dogs is important. They have to get along.

The yelping increases, echoing through the valley. The excitement and eagerness to run evident in the yelps. Pinkham slips on a heavy parka with a fur-lined hood. Pulling on thick, arctic-tested gloves, he yanks the hook out of the snow and the team lunges forward in unison. They’re off. Forty miles to go. One more training run as they prepare for the Iditarod.

The barking continues as the sled disappears around the corner.

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