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Fighting fit.

Geographical discovers how musher Max Hall limbers up for the `Last Great Race on Earth'

For most people, exercising their pooch means a gentle run round the park, but Max Hall has taken dog walking to extremes. The only British entrant in this year's `Last Great Race on Earth', he became hooked on dog sled racing after buying two Siberian huskies as pets. "I realised that all they wanted to do was run," he says. "I went to Alaska to see what the Iditarod Trail dog sled race was all about. In 1993, I followed the race trail as an onlooker, swearing to my wife that it would be enough to satisfy my curiosity. But then I entered the qualifier and actually took part in my first race in 1995."

The course is a tough one. Starting from 4th Avenue in downtown Anchorage, the trail goes off-road on the first day and heads into the wilderness. It follows the now unused Gold Rush Trails which were built in the 1890s to get mail in and gold out. The 50 or so teams of 16 dogs pull sleds for 320 kilometres across three mountain ranges, up the frozen Yukon River, then across the sea ice of Norton Bay to the finish line, some 1856 kilometres from the start point. "We set off at two minute intervals," explains Max. "You see other competitors for the first few days, then you see fewer and fewer people. When you get to the end of the race you very rarely see anyone. For example, the team in front of me was 29 hours ahead and the following team was 17 hours behind. It's not exactly a spectator sport at the finish."

The race crosses some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth, so it's important that the human competitors and their canine companions are fit. Forty-eight-year-old Max works out at the gym three or four times a week and takes his own dogs for frequent walks. When racing, it's the dogs who have to do much of the work. "The dogs are the athletes," he says. "Our job is to make sure they stay healthy and happy. I try to keep up a sensible level of fitness myself but there are times on the trail when you think you should have done more. But if you stand on the sled and expect the dogs to pull you up a mountain they'll stop and stare at you. When you join in with them, they'll carry on."

Max begins training his dogs six months before the race. He starts out with 12 kilometres runs and builds up to 100 kilometres or more a day. In the race the huskies have to cover more than 150 kilometres a day. "The speed varies a bit," explains Max. "They go a lot faster at night and we tend to rest in the day time. If there's sunlight then we rest. It's not warm -- it can be 30 degrees below freezing -- but if it's sunny, a black-haired dog can overheat."

This year Max had to drop off seven dogs en route because of ground blizzards, deep snow and temperatures that fell to minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit. But it didn't stop him and his team of dogs finishing the race in 12 days, 22 hours and 48 minutes, beating his previous personal finish time by two and a half days. His scariest moment in the race came when the team was chased up the Yukon River by a pack of wolves. "It was three o' clock in the morning and I'd sent my gun back," he recalls. "I only had a flare gun and an axe."

So were the wolves enough to frighten Max off or will he be entering next year's race? "Well I did swear to my wife that I wouldn't," he laughs. "But I probably will."

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Title Annotation:training for Alaskan Iditarod dog-sled race
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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