Kelly Maixner said he learned a lot after running in his first 1,131-mile Iditarod last year. And so did his dogs.
Maixner, a native of Golva, is set to run in his second Iditarod sled dog race that starts March 3.
As a rookie last year, the 36-year-old pediatric dentist now living in Big Lake, Alaska, had a goal of finishing near the middle of the pack in a field of 62 mushers.
He did a little better than that, finishing 30th. His goal this year is to finish in the top 20.
Maixner's 16-dog team last year consisted mostly of 1- and 2-year-old dogs, young by sled dog standards.
Most dogs won't hit their prime until they reach 5 years of age, he said.
"I kind of compare them to being a high school, college or professional athlete," he said.
Right now, he said, his team members are still high schoolers.
But his dogs now have a year more experience, training and conditioning under their collars — that, and more trust in their musher.
Maixner's Mad Stork Kennel now has 53 Alaskan sled dogs, and going into this year's race, all but two of his dogs will had the benefit of having run last year.
Even though he finished 30th, Maixner lost 12-14 hours on the ice, a 100-mile run along Norton Sound on the Bering Sea.
That was the big test for a young team and a rookie musher.
He set out on the sea ice at night and the team did fine until the sun came up — and along with it, the wind.
The wind either buried or took away the trail markers, and Maixner said he lost the trail and the dogs became disoriented and confused.
In the open, the dogs began running in circles, and Maixner said he thought his race was finished with just more than 200 miles remaining.
Maixner took a five-hour break with his dogs to regroup. He assumed the role of the lead dog and walked the team five miles toward the lights of Koyuk, the next stop about 11 miles down the trail. That's the trust part, he said.
"I didn't think I'd finish the race," Maixner said. "They flew one musher who I was ahead of a little before that ... it happens a lot on the ice."
Maixner figured that without the lost time, he would have finished a good five places ahead of where he did. But it's all part of the learning curve, he said.
"I think they have a lot more trust in me now," he said.
Another thing Maixner said he learned is that often, less is more. A marathon runner, Maxiner uses the same philosophy he uses to train for the human race on his dogs.
"Short, short, long," he said. Two or three times a week, he runs the dogs hard for 40 miles. Then on weekends, it's runs of 200-300 miles with little rest.
He said most of the mushers who run in the intermediate races, like a 300-mile jaunt a couple weeks ago, maintain a pace of 12-14 mph.
Maixner said he likes to keep a pace of about 10 mph, saving something for the end of the race.
His strategy going into this year's Iditarod will be to hang back in the middle of the pack for the first 500 to 600 miles of the race, then pick up the tempo.
He said no one coached him or taught him how to train a sled dog.
"That's the way I do it, so I guess my training regime was working," he said. He said instinct comes into play to a large degree both during training and racing. Teams are required to take rest stops every so often, but for the most part, the mushers can stop whenever they want or push on down the trail.
And Maixner said one thing he is planning to do is cut 24 hours off his rest time. He said he's hoping with his dogs being a year older, more experienced and more mature, they will need less rest.
Maixner said he's already adjusted his training schedule the past month and a half by going with less sleep. He and his wife, Margaret, became parents for the first time with the arrival of Rosemary Florence on Dec. 27.
"She's been making sure I'm used to sleep deprivation," he said.
Maxiner said his wife is a big part of the team, making sure the drop bags with food for the team are ready to go and taking care of "literally" a million details.
Margaret Maxiner will be providing updates on their website, http://madstorkkennel.com, and on their Mad Stork Kennel Facebook page.
Maxiner said in the past year, the response from friends and family — and from people he doesn't know — has been phenomenal.
He said he is optimistic about reaching his goal of finishing in the top 20, then the top 10 next year. Then, who knows?
"I've learned a ton in the last year — the dogs, they've just matured," he said. "And they just want to run."
Last year, North Dakota was represented by three mushers in the Iditarod. Bismarck native Heather Siirtola and Ellen Halvorson of the Grand Forks area were in the race.
Neither is running the 2012 Iditarod.