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Snow Dogs: Local man has competed in 35 dog sled races

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

As the Iditorad comes to a close over the next few days, there is one Social Circle man watching with keen interest. Bob Holder has competed in roughly 35 dog sled races, including the Iditorad, during his lifetime, never finishing first but sometimes earning a spot in the top 10.

While performing well in a race is a bonus, that's not what Holder views as most important. Simply completing every one of his races, some so rigorous they caused Holder to hallucinate along the trail, is his primary accomplishment.

"The thing I'm most proud of is that I never scratched because of pushing the dogs too hard," Holder said. "The greatest reward of a finisher is to know sincerely that he has done everything he can with the ability of the dogs to finish as high as he can."

Holder, now 75, entered his first race at age 50, two years after his career in the well drilling business led him from Covington to Alaska in 1983. Frozen ground in winter made it impossible to drill, so Holder looked for a pastime. Mushing sled dogs intrigued him.

"I got into it for the adventure of it and just to experience sledding with dogs. Then my competitiveness came out," Holder said.

He started in small races -- 50 to 300 miles -- using Siberian huskies, which had a lot of endurance but not much speed, and graduated to Alaskan huskies, a faster breed. He competed in his first long-distance race, the Yukon Quest which traverses 1,000 miles through Alaska and Canada, in 1988, and joined the Iditorad, an 1,100-mile race through Alaska, in 1991.

In 1995, Holder accomplished a racing feat no one before or after him ever has -- he raced the Yukon Quest, then the Iditorad and lastly the Hope Race, which traveled from Alaska to Siberia.

"I'm the only person in the world who has run three 1,000-mile races back to back," Holder said.

A long-distance race can take between nine and 12 days, depending on snow conditions. Beyond a mandatory 24- to 36-hour break, depending on the race, teams proceed on the course at their own pace, camping in the sled along the way or staying at checkpoints.

Generally, racers spend 12 hours a day running and 12 resting, though that time can be split up as racers see fit. Holder said he started off racing four hours on and four hours off and eventually settled on six on and six off.

Keeping the dogs properly rested and fed is the key to finishing a race. Unlike horses, which can literally be run to death, dogs, when they are worn out, will simply stop and lay down, said Holder.

He cited an example of a racer who was near the finish line and rather than continue with proper rest periods, she refused to let her dogs take a break the last portion of the race. The dogs quit 20 miles from the finish line.

"The worst thing that can happen to a team is pushing the dogs too far," Holder said.

Dogs start training for races in September when the temperatures are in the 50s, otherwise they run the risk of heat stroke. Holder said endurance is increased by running the dogs farther every week, similar to how long-distance runners train.

Successful racing involves knowing the limitations of your dogs and taking proper care of the animals, said Holder. Racers ship between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds of high quality food -- beef, salmon, chicken -- to checkpoints for a race. Race a dog too hard and it won't eat, Holder said.

At every stop, a musher must heat up the food, thaw snow for water, check and treat the dogs for injuries, and spread hay for them to sleep in. Bedding the dogs down takes roughly an hour, and then the musher gets to eat and sleep.

Out of a six-hour stop, a musher might get four hours of rest.

"Long-distance racing is a 24-hour, seven-days-a- week thing," Holder said. "It's very fatiguing."

Holder said he started racing at a late age, and younger racers are better able to cope with the lack of sleep. He remembers one time running a trail, which consisted of a typical wide-open, snow-covered space, when he hallucinated a train in the distance.

Holder took an unlikely path to dog sledding. A native of Florida, Holder graduated from the University of Georgia in 1959, where he attended on a partial basketball scholarship, and then obtained a position as a ranger with the U.S. Army. He served in the Vietnam War for two years, then taught ROTC and coached basketball at a college.

He moved to Covington in 1968 and worked for his father-in-law's well drilling business. In 1983, he remarried to wife Jeanne, and moved to Fairbanks, Alaska, where the couple lived until 2001. Holder ran his last race in 2000.

The couple lives in Social Circle, not far from Holder's three children, nine grandchildren and two great grandchildren. The Holders keep a variety of pets including two Alaskan huskies and a Siberian husky.

Holder said he wouldn't mind participating in another race if the opportunity presented itself.

"It gets in your blood," Holder said.