ANCHORAGE — From Alamogordo to Alaska, Nicolas Petit is living the American dream. Petit, 39, will be competing in this year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, a 1,000 mile endurance race, also known as the last great race on Earth, across the frozen tundra of Alaska from Anchorage to Nome starting March 3.
Born in France, Petit grew up in Normandy where he discovered he had a love for adventure and the great outdoors. He moved overseas to La Luz in Otero County, with his mother and sister when he was 12 years old to live near his grandparents who resided in High Rolls.
The Petit family later moved to Alamogordo, where Petit calls home in the U.S.
Petit attended Alamogordo High School where he stayed until the 10th-grade before moving with his family again to Socorro, where he graduated from Socorro High School.
People often wonder how Petit’s passion for dog mushing came about since he grew up in a place where dog sledding was practically non-existent, but to his account, Petit said he always had it in his blood.
As an infant Petit said he learned how to walk by the help of a dog, the family’s pet boxer. But little did young Petit know that dogs would be a part of his life forever.
When Petit moved to Girdwood, Alaska, in 2000, he decided he needed a lifelong furry companion.
“I’ve always had dogs in my life. When I moved to Alaska I felt like I was ready to take on a new buddy,” Petit said. “Somebody told me there was a dog that had a litter of puppies. I went and picked one up. It was the first dog that pulled me in this direction, but he wasn’t exactly what you call a sled dog. He was more of a big, fluffy Husky looking thing.”
He lovingly named this dog Ugly, but he was far from it. Ugly, a beautiful, blue-eyed, full-bred Husky, was the catalyst that lead Petit’s interest in dog mushing.
In 2011, Petit worked as a local tour guide with Ugly by his side when one day an older musher needed help for an upcoming Iditarod race.
“An older gentleman needed help with the Iditarod and I volunteered to help him. He had a hip replacement surgery so he couldn’t run his team,” Petit said. “He offered me the opportunity to take his team to Nome and I became Rookie of the Year, that kick started my career.”
Sadly, Ugly tragically passed away a few years after that but he luckily got to experience the life of a sled dog for a short time.
Petit said every time he races with his pack, they run in Ugly’s honor to remember his legacy.
Since then, Petit has seven Iditarod races under his reigns and is considered a top contender in the competitive world of sled dog racing.
During his career, Petit has won several awards and thousands of dollars in prize money.
After Petit’s 28th place finish in the Iditarod and Rookie of the Year nod in 2011, the next year, he came in 29th place out of 52 sled dog teams in the Iditarod. Petit’s finishing time was 10 days, 23 hours, and 24 minutes. In 2013, he improved immensely and finished in sixth place with an overall time of 9 days, 11 hours, 39 minutes and 13 seconds.
In 2014, Petit shockingly withdrew from the Iditarod while on the trail for unknown reasons. He made a comeback though in 2015 and finished in 10th place with a time of 9 days, 11 hours, 19 minutes and 20 seconds.
Petit came in 7th place in 2016 and completed the Iditarod in 8 days, 23 hours, 30 minutes and 10 seconds.
Petit’s fastest finish was in 2017 when he came in third place, his biggest finish to date. He completed the Iditarod in 8 days, 6 hours, 29 minutes and 13 seconds.
This year, Petit said he’s ready, mentally prepared and determined to come out on top and beat defending champion Mitch Seavey in the annual long-distance sled dog race.
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race began in 1973 in honor of the 1925 serum run to Nome, when a large diphtheria epidemic threatened the small isolated Alaskan town.
“It started because there was no purpose for sled dogs anymore and dog lovers like Joe Redington Sr. wanted to make sure that sled dogs still had a place in this world,” Petit said. “Joe Redington Sr. encouraged mushers to sign up for this new race and he chose Nome as the finish line because of the serum run.”
Joe Redington Sr. was a dog musher and kennel owner and is credited with creating the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, we know today. He died June 24, 1999.
The 1925 serum run to Nome was a transport of diphtheria antitoxin by sled dog relay across Alaska on the Iditarod Trail by 20 mushers and about 150 sled dogs in a 674-mile run to save the town from the outbreak of the disease. Dog sledding was the primary means of transportation and communication in the arctic communities around the world at the time because airplane technology was not advanced enough to fly in subarctic temperatures.
“They organized a relay of very good mushers and the mushers took the serum to Nome and saved the children and the whole town,” Petit said. “In New York, there’s a statue of Balto, he was one of the lead dogs that was on the last session of that trail.”
Both mushers and their dogs were portrayed as heroes after their courageous relay from Nenana to Nome and received headline coverage across the U.S. Balto and Togo, two sled dogs who fearlessly lead their teams through a blizzard, became instant celebrities and were even acknowledged by President Calvin Coolidge.
“If you trust your dogs, you can trust yourself. The most important thing is to have a good repertoire with your dog team. Trust them because they know where they’re going,” Petit said. “They always end up being right.”
Petit’s sled dog team is a family affair. His girlfriend Emily Maxwell will be making her Iditarod debut in March. Between Petit and Maxwell, they have a pack of 40 dogs and counting.
“The 40 includes the youngest puppies who were born this summer and aren’t running yet,” Petit said. “We take 16 on the Iditarod and 12 on most little races, they are called Alaskan Huskies, a breed not recognized by the American Kennel Club. They are the product of the gold rush in Alaska which later became racing dogs.”
Petit said what he loves most about racing is the same thing he loved about living in New Mexico, the adrenaline rush of being out in the middle of nowhere experiencing mother nature.
“New Mexico is a lot like Alaska. Alaska is a lot less developed so we get to travel by dog sled and we really get to enjoy the scenery because we don’t drive our cars,” he said. “We do drive though to get supplies for the dogs.”
One major difference between New Mexico and the last frontier, however, is the freezing, sub-zero weather. While living in New Mexico Petit experienced summer and spring almost all year round, but in Alaska he trains in 65 below zero weather to prepare for his sled dog races.
The iconic winter event will take place March 3 as onlookers will get a chance to get a close-up view of the teams. Thousands of spectators will flock to the start and finish line to witness the Iditarod mushers and their dogs test their limits on the 1,000 mile trail to Nome.
The Iditarod will distribute at least $500,000 among the finishing mushers. The highest percentages will be paid to teams in first through 20th place. According to the Iditarod’s official website, 61 mushers have signed up for the last great race on Earth.
For more information on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and to keep track of Petit on the trail, visit the Iditarod’s website at www.iditarod.com