In training a few months ago, Tim Osmar listened to the patter of little feet. His dogs showed power running hills, but not as fast as he liked running flats. He was looking at a squadron of mountaineers, when he'd been hoping for a bunch of marathoners.
That's when Osmar first thought of entering the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest instead of the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. It was only later that he realized he could do both.
So Sunday, Osmar, 34, of Ninilchik hit the trail for the re-start of the 29th annual Iditarod with the championship of the Quest in his pocket and a gang of fresh dogs in front of him.
Attempting to compete in two 1,000-mile races in the same season is not unprecedented. But none of the handful of mushers who have attempted it captured the title of either one in the same season. Anybody who does win either of the long-distance endurance tests counts his winter as a successful season.
"We already had a good year. So far, things are going pretty good," Osmar said.
Osmar, a 15-time Iditarod top-20 placer who has never been out of the money, has six top-five placings, but he has been disappointed with the results in his last three Iditarods when he finished 17th, 18th and 16th. Coming home as champion of February's Quest was an injection of confidence.
If the Iditarod is the most famous sled-dog race in the world, then the Quest must be considered second best. The honor roll of past champions is impressive, including Joe Runyan, Jeff King, Rick Mackey and Charlie Boulding, savvy mushers with long track records of achievement. A musher can do worse than be mentioned in their company.
The Quest trail differs greatly from the Iditarod route he is so used to traveling. There is more room between checkpoints on the Quest and definitely more of the hills for which his team was suited.
In the early going, many teams were bunched. Osmar went head-to-head with William Kleedehn, Dave Sawatzky and Andrew Lesh. As the race sorted itself out, other contenders flaked off one by one. Finally, Osmar outlasted second-placer Lesh, winning in 11 days, 14 hours, 38 minutes.
"I had a couple of more dogs than him," Osmar said. "I was stronger in the hills."
The championship run from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, to Fairbanks indeed did provide a re-energizing boost for Osmar.
"It was a good feeling," Osmar said. "It wasn't the Iditarod, but it was the next-best thing. It helped renew my mushing confidence. It was a good way to do it."
The paycheck of $30,000 didn't hurt, either. Osmar and his wife Tawny have four children, and he is a commercial fisherman, but running dogs at an elite level is expensive. Entering the Quest was not premeditated in terms of it being part of a long-term plan, but was more a case of adapting to the realities of the makeup of his present team.
Osmar was discussing the situation with his father, Dean, the 1984 Iditarod champ, when Dean blurted, "You should do both."
Tim replied that he didn't think he had enough fast dogs to do both races. Dean's solution? Use some of his dogs.
The elder Osmar has maintained a kennel and other mushers buy, borrow or rent dogs from him. As it happened, he had some good dogs available to blend with a group of his son's.
Often, top-flight mushers with big kennels take their best dogs down the Iditarod trail while assigning handlers the task of guiding a yearling team to Nome. This "second" Osmar team includes many young dogs, but they are not yearlings. It's not the A team, but it's not dogs out for a jog, either.
In fact, Osmar doesn't know how all of the dogs from his father will mesh with his and how they will perform together.
"It's a mystery," he said.
Dean Osmar, who said he is proud of his son's victory in the Quest, used the same word, though he did say he thought the team was capable of placing in the top 20.
Tim Osmar's behavior and training have been on the mysterious side this winter, according to friend and fellow musher Jon Little. In the past, Little trained with Osmar in the Kenai Peninsula's Caribou Hills. This year Osmar trained more on his own.
"He's been really secretive," Little said. "He went off at night to do his own thing. I know he wanted to win. He was more intense than he had been in a long time."
One question is how the musher's body will hold up for two long races over rough trail. Osmar said his back and feet are fine, that they did not take much of a pounding in the Quest, but of course both races offer first-class opportunities for sleep deprivation.
"It's good training for the fishing season coming up," said Dean Osmar.
True. Tim Osmar is a musher and a commercial fisherman. Heck, he probably hasn't slept since 1988 anyway.