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February 28. 2013 9:06PM

New Hampshire native ready to take on the Iditarod


Former Rumney residents Mike and Sue Ellis accept the Veterinarian's Choice Award in recognition of superior care for sled dogs, at the 2011 Yukon Quest, a 1,000-mile race through parts of Alaska and Canada's Yukon territory. (COURTESY)

Like any successful athlete, Mike Ellis is in tune with his team. They eat together, sleep together, play together and train together. And if Ellis' teammates are especially impressive, they get really good belly rubs.

"You have to be the leader, but you have to be their buddy too," Ellis, a former Rumney resident, said of his purebred Siberian Husky sled-dog team. "I guess it's kind of like being a player-coach. You have to lead them, but you also have to be a part of the team too."

Ellis and his 16-dog team are making their debut this weekend in the famed Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, running under the banner of Team Tsuga of Two Rivers, Alaska. Ellis and his wife Sue, both Plymouth State University graduates, have been training and racing dogs for about 17 years.

"I run Siberian huskies, which are slower than the average Alaskan huskies that these guys are running," Ellis said, referring to his Iditarod competitors. "So I can honestly say that I'm not in the race to win. I can honestly say that I'm in the race to do the best I can, to have a great trip and to really honestly kind of be a statesman and an advocate for the dogs."

The Iditarod is an annual long-distance race from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska. Mushers and their teams take anywhere from nine to 15 days to cover the 1,131-mile distance. The trek has them cross the Alaska Range, traveling on several major rivers and finishing along the shores of Norton Sound. Aside from the grueling pace and distance, mushers and their dogs have to contend with temperatures that can dip to 30 or 40 degrees below zero. And that's without wind chill.

Though this is Ellis' first Iditarod, it's not his first long distance race. He's a five-time participant in the Yukon Quest - another 1,000-mile race, from Fairbanks to Whitehorse in Canada's Yukon territory - and holds the record for the fastest purebred Siberian team in any 1,000-mile event.

"A lot of it is just a really intense focus on the dogs," Ellis said. "You're watching them for steps that might go wrong. You're always watching for injury and other concerns with the dogs.

"You're traveling through these incredibly remote, distant places. As long as you bring your focus in on the dogs, it doesn't matter where you are. The whole remoteness and coldness and darkness kind of goes away."

Years ago, Ellis was a self-described ski bum, spending years working at Loon Mountain in Lincoln. But in 1993, when he helped out with a New Hampshire team just back from the Yukon Quest, he caught the mushing bug. He even gave his future wife a husky pup as an engagement gift.

"Magic," said Ellis, summing up what it was like mushing for the first time. "I still feel that way. Being out on the sled with the dogs - it's not like any other sport. I had been a mountain climber, I had been a skier, I had made my living from skiing, but none of it really held a candle to when I got out there for the first time with a dog team. It feels like I'm in a magical place when I'm out there with my dogs."

In New Hampshire, the Ellises built a house, a kennel and a lifestyle around their huskies. But three years ago, the call of the wild was too great to resist, and the couple moved to Fairbanks with their dogs.

Loranne Carey Block, who raised and trained Ellis' dog Ivy at Snow Star Farm in Antrim, said she's not surprised his team is strong. In addition to Ivy, she said, the majority of Ellis' dogs are part of the same New Hampshire family of purebred Siberians.

Block said Ivy's parents were both outstanding leader dogs that came from a long line of eastern Canadian racing Siberian huskies. One of those dogs, Jack, ran with Block's dog sled team.

"(Jack) was probably what I would consider a lifetime (sled) dog," Block said. "He was this incredibly wonderful leader and really unbelievable dog. (He) is behind all of the dogs on Mike's team. They have that drive and ability."

Because genetics alone are not enough, Ellis and other competitive mushers put their dogs through a rigorous training program. He's also personally delivered 15 of the 16 dogs on his team. He said that rather than shop around for the best dogs, he and Sue instead work to get the best out of the dogs they have.

The Ellises train their dogs every day to prepare for their races, with a few months off in the summer. By the end of August, the dogs start training again by pulling around a four-wheeler. By October, there is snow in Fairbanks, and the dogs are able to start training again with sleds. By late February, they've logged more than 3,000 miles.

It's not all work, though.

"They are extremely concerned with how they feed and how they train the dogs," said Block, who was familiar with the Ellises and the kennel they ran before their move to Alaska. "They take exceptional care of their dogs."

Such care has paid off not only in healthy, effective racers, but also in several Veterinarian's Choice Awards for the couple.

"My slogan is, 'Respect your dog,'" Mike Ellis said. "I'm OK with not winning because I look for the best my dogs can do, not necessarily what it takes to win."

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race starts Saturday and can be followed online at www.iditarod.com. Team Tsuga can be followed through its website at www.teamtsuga.com or on Facebook.


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