In highschool, Josh McNeal might have been chosen “more than likely to ..” and it wouldn’t matter what adopted.
“I might have seen Josh do something,” La Middle Excessive soccer coach John Lambert mentioned. “If he turned president, it will not shock me. If he determined to climb Mt. Everest, I’d be like ‘I might see Josh doing that.’ He was simply one of many children who might do something he set his thoughts to.”
So it got here as no shock to Lambert when he heard that one among his former gamers can be getting into his first Iditarod sled dog race, which begins on Sunday.
“Yep, that feels like Josh,” Lambert mentioned.
McNeal, a 2013 La Middle Excessive graduate, might be one among 47 mushers and one among 12 rookies who embark Sunday from simply outdoors Wasilla, Alaska, for the 852-mile out-and-back path to Iditarod.
“The route will not be going to Nome this yr due to COVID,” McNeal mentioned. “Organizers didn’t need mushers and volunteers going into a few of the distant villages on the way in which to Nome.”
McNeal’s journey to grow to be an Iditarod musher really started as a teen a decade in the past.
An opportunity assembly with the house owners of an Alaskan fishing lodge on the Portland Boat Present led McNeal to persuade his dad and mom, Tom and Gina McNeal of La Middle, to spend his summers as a fishing information within the forty ninth state.
“The unique draw of Alaska was the journey,” mentioned McNeal, now 26. “I began engaged on the Kenai Peninsula once I was 16 through the summers. I’d fly up for the summer time and work, then fly again a few days earlier than soccer began at La Middle.”
When McNeal determined he needed to review petroleum engineering in faculty, he returned to attend the College of Alaska Anchorage.
“My sophomore yr, I began out skijoring, which is cross-country snowboarding hooked up to some sled canine,” McNeal mentioned. “I actually loved that, and I needed to get hooked as much as some extra canine.”
He began mushing recreationally, after which throughout his senior yr at UAA, he labored as a handler on the kennel of Iditarod musher Ken Anderson.
“I used to be serving to him prepare up his staff for the Iditarod,” McNeal mentioned. “That’s once I actually obtained hooked occurring these actually lengthy runs.”
Within the spring of 2018, when Anderson determined to retire from canine sledding, McNeal purchased out his kennel.
“After which my kennel was born,” McNeal mentioned.
McNeal operates Crooked Creek Kennel in Ester, Alaska, simply outdoors Fairbanks, along with his spouse, Jobie.
“We began courting earlier than I obtained any canine, and I advised her that I needed to get my very own canine staff,” McNeal mentioned. “She actually didn’t know what that meant. However she’s form of been right here the entire journey with me. We obtained married in December, and he or she’s simply as a lot part of coaching and caring for the staff as I’m.”
McNeal works as a nicely website supervisor for an oil firm on the North Slope of Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle. He works two weeks on, two weeks off.
“Whereas I’m at work, my spouse and my handler are caring for the canine and work on coaching and retaining them transferring,” McNeal mentioned. “And once I come dwelling for work, it’s just about run canine day by day.”
And it’s not an affordable pursuit. McNeal mentioned it could value on common of $1,000 a yr per canine to cowl meals and veterinary wants. And his kennel has practically 40 canine.
“We do have family and friends that assist sponsor us,” he mentioned. “And we now have a sponsorship program. You may sponsor a person canine, and we give them sweatshirts and issues of that nature with our emblem on them. We undoubtedly recognize that as a result of that is an costly sport.”
He obtained his begin racing within the sport within the winter of 2018-19, competing in a few occasions in Alaska. Within the winter of 2019-20, he went to the decrease 48 to race occasions in Idaho, Michigan and Minnesota. Earlier this winter, he competed within the Willow 300 in Alaska, which certified him for the 2021 Iditarod.
McNeal mentioned competing in soccer and wrestling at La Middle Excessive Faculty helped put together him for the pains of sled canine racing.
“There’s really lots of people who had been highschool and faculty wrestlers who at the moment are mushers,” he mentioned. “It’s a really mentally taxing sport. You get extraordinarily drained, sleep disadvantaged. It’s a ton a piece out on the path. Typically, it’s depressing climate. It’s important to overcome quite a lot of obstacles.”
One of many greater challenges McNeal needed to face occurred within the Idaho Canine Sled Problem in December 2019 whereas he stopped his staff to retrieve some rubbish that had fallen off his sled.
“I set each of snow hooks, however I didn’t set one on a tree,” he mentioned. “However I figured I’d be positive. The rule of thumb is you by no means stroll behind your sled since you might lose your staff. I went again to select up the piece of trash, and my staff pulled the snow hook out. I took off at a lifeless dash and once I jumped to seize my sled, I really tore my hamstring fairly good. And my staff proceeded to pull me down a mountain for about two miles. Then I needed to proceed the subsequent 20 miles or so to the subsequent checkpoint with a torn hamstring.”
McNeal is hopeful nothing like that occurs within the Iditarod, which he expects to take eight days to finish.
“It’s all about how one can cope with all these challenges and have perspective,” he mentioned. “In case you have perspective then your canine are going to feed off that.”
Whereas he’s assured in his staff, McNeal mentioned his main purpose is to complete the race.
“For the primary half of the race, I’m not planning on doing something loopy,” he mentioned. “So long as canine look good, which they need to, I’ve a schedule in my thoughts that I wish to run. And if I discover myself with a wholesome staff and we’re ready to compete, then we’ll begin competing. It will be actually nice to win rookie of the yr, however there are some actually aggressive rookies entered this yr.”
The canine are the actual stars of the Iditarod. McNeal with begin with 14 canine on his sled, led by Jenna, Suka, Mara and Hoagie.
“I’m simply going to take every day, and every mile, one after the other, and run my staff to the perfect of their capability and ensure I’m placing their well being first earlier than any of the objectives I’ve in my thoughts,” he mentioned. “Crucial factor is ending with a wholesome, glad staff.”
Some could marvel why anybody would wish to put themselves by such a grueling ordeal with little or no sleep in someday bitterly chilly temperatures with a attainable run-in with a grumpy moose.
“Moose actually don’t like canine groups,” he mentioned.
However for Josh McNeal, it’s all a part of the journey.
“Mushing has simply added to all the journey of attending to see all these amazingly lovely locations with a few of your finest buddies,” he mentioned of his time in Alaska. “I’ve obtained to see some unimaginable sights across the state, some unimaginable northern lights, and the bond with the canine is tough to elucidate.”