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Trent Herbst

A dog's tale

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Students at the Community School in Sun Valley are getting pretty excited. They can't wait for Saturday, March 5. It's not a holiday. That's the day the 2011 Iditarod begins in Nome, Alaska. These students will follow the race closely as Trent Herbst, one of their teachers, and 16 of his best friends mush their way through what is billed as "The Last Great Race on Earth."

You've taught all over the world. Did you always want to be a teacher?

No. I wanted to be a swim coach. But I had a strong desire to travel in South America, so I took a job where I was a swim coach and taught some elementary school in Buenos Aires. But life takes a turn. I was trying to bicycle from South America to Alaska, but I got mugged in Peru. I lost everything. By the time I made it back to my hometown in Wisconsin, I had to take a factory job. I eventually landed another teaching job in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. That's where I met my wife, Candida.

You had a dangerous brush with near-tragedy there.

I was in a bad motorcycle accident. I shattered my leg, broke an ankle and lost my spleen. It took about eight months to recover. Doctors told me that because I didn't have a spleen, I'd probably be constantly sick if I stayed in a developing country. We had no desire to return to the states, so I went to Europe. I taught in Bonn, Germany, for two years, and then in Zug, Switzerland.

When or where did you have first contact with sled dog racing?

My students in Germany wanted to learn about the Iditarod. So I learned along with them. When I moved to Switzerland, I took my fourth graders to sled dog races. After our daughter was born, we moved to the upper peninsula of Michigan where I worked at a sled dog kennel.

You followed that with a move to Alaska to learn more about sled dog racing, but how did you sustain yourself?

I worked with the mentally disabled at a community health center in Homer, Alaska.

When did you race in your first Iditarod?

In 2006. I figured it would be a one-time event, and I'd go back to a normal life.

When did you come to Idaho?

Right about the time of the race in 2006, I got a call from Laura Kennedy. We taught together in Germany. She had since become the principal at the Community School in Sun Valley. She asked me if I would ever go back to teaching. I said it would have to be a perfect spot. She said, "Why don't you come down to Sun Valley and at least say hi." Well, I've been here for five years.

And now you teach in Sun Valley and race in the Iditarod each year.

I teach my class in six-week units. We're currently in a unit called "threatened cultures," and I concentrate on arctic cultures in northern Canada and northern Alaska.

I understand your students make boots for the dogs.

I go through about two thousand booties a year. My students make about 200 to 300 of them.

Is it true your students make your sled?

You bet. The first one, three years ago, was made out of hockey sticks. It got busted up pretty bad during the race. Last year, we made a really good sled out of laminated ash wood. This year, we're attaching solar panels that we hope will power my GPS, iPod and head lamp.

Give us the basics on the Iditarod.

It's more than 1,000 miles. I stop about 25 times and camp outside with the dogs.

What's the worst of it as far as the weather?

Last year, it was 60 below. But there was no wind, so it wasn't that bad. Ironically, the colder it is, the better the dogs run. They're also nocturnal. The best hours for us are 4 p.m. until 10 p.m. and then again from 4 a.m. until 10 a.m.

They live to run, right?

Every year, I'm more in awe of what they're capable of doing. They get so excited when they're charging into a blizzard. For me, when I'm on the sled, it's like sitting in the first row at the Olympics.

How many more years will you race?

I always say this is my last one. But after this year, I definitely think I'll only run one more.

When do you head north?

The first week of March.

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