There are no more rookie of the year trophies for Nathan Schroeder to win at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

The 37-year-old musher from Chisholm took that honor last year while finishing the roughly 1,000-mile race in 17th place. A handmade, leather-crafted rookie-of-the-year plaque hangs in a special place on Schroeder’s farm.  

He left for this year’s race - which starts today - with what appeared to be modest expectations.

“I want to finish,” Schroeder said. “I want to do better than last year, but that’s kind of my last priority.”

Jamie Nelson said such modesty belies the hunger inside Schroeder. She’s been communing with Schroeder for weeks, when he would stop at her place in Togo for a brief layup during 100-mile training runs.  

“He’s become very competitive,” said Nelson, the 66-year-old who is the only four-time victor of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon and a three-time Iditarod finisher.

Schroeder and 77 other mushers begin the Iditarod today with a ceremonial 11-mile stretch through Anchorage, Alaska. The race begins in earnest on Monday, when it leaves Fairbanks for the 998-mile dash to Nome. Top finishers usually take about nine days to complete the race.

According to Alaska media reports, the interior of the state could get down to 20 degrees below zero by midweek.  

In a recent interview with the News Tribune, Nelson pinpointed ways in which she believes Schroeder can build upon the impressive start to his Iditarod career.

“He needs to improve on his checkpoint procedures, so he can get more sleep and not have to stay quite as long,” she said.

Mushers who pull into Iditarod checkpoints aren’t met with supportive pit crews like one might expect. Rather, everything is on the musher, Nelson said, from removing booties and taking care of the dogs’ feet to heating water and laying out straw for dogs to hydrate, rest and warm.

“It’s totally the responsibility of the musher,” Nelson said. “That’s the thing that’s hardest to do.”

The trick is to do it efficiently in order for the musher to get an effective measure of personal rest, too.

What one needs to avoid, Nelson said, is stopping for a planned five-hour break and leaving after nine hours. That’s what happened to Iditarod entrant Brent Sass in winning the 2015 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race in Alaska in February.

He entered the final checkpoint with a comfy lead and left it trailing by two minutes because he slept through his alarm, nearly doubling his planned rest.  

“He was able to pull it off,” Nelson said, “but it’s a good lesson about how you need to take care of yourself. Otherwise, you can’t take care of the dog team.”

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