After 200 miles — and more than 22 hours — of racing, Cim Smyth and Jeff King were separated by just seven minutes at the end of the Tustumena 200 sled dog race Sunday afternoon.
Smyth and King, both veteran mushers who have won the T200 in the past, arrived in Homer for the final layover eight minutes apart, with King in the lead.
Smyth, from Big Lake, said he took the lead at the final Oilwell Pad checkpoint. Then King shadowed him for about 14 miles.
Each switched his lead dogs hoping to edge out his competitor. King, of Denali, said he brought a dog named Skeeter forward to join his usual leader, Burglar. Skeeter was better suited to race Smyth than his prior leader who wasn’t as fond of the fast pace Smyth was taking, he said.
Smyth said he struggled with leaders throughout the race. He had four female leaders, but three of them couldn’t beat King, he said. Some were in heat, so they couldn’t be paired with his male leader, Alpha. But once he had to drop Alpha for a sore wrist, he was ready to let Jane, a 4-year-old who raced the T200 when Smyth took second place last year, take over. That gave him the edge to finish at 3:56 p.m., with just enough time to get out of the finish chute before King slid in at 4:03 p.m.
Despite the close race, King said the Smyth was a gracious competitor who let him pass when necessary.
“Cim is an outstanding dog musher and a gentleman,” King said. “... I’ve been racing Cim and his brother Ramey for many, many years and they’re really a top-shelf family.”
Smyth said the tough competition gave him a run for his money — he liked the spice and fear they added to the race.
“It’s harder, but it’s exciting,” Smyth said. “It’s fun.”
The result was what Smyth wanted.
“I came down here hoping and planning to win,” Smyth said.
Chatanika’s Dan Kaduce, and Kasilof’s Colleen Robertia and Paul Gebhardt rounded out the top 5 Sunday night, taking third, fourth and fifth place respectively.
All but Kaduce had raced the T200 before. Despite their experience, each faced a new mostly-new trail.
Smyth said he enjoyed the route, which took teams to Homer and back, with a jaunt through the Caribou Hills and a 6-hour layover at Freddie’s Roadhouse.
“I liked it,” Smyth said. “It’s hilly.”
Robertia said the new course was challenging.
“It’s beautiful and excruciating at the same time,” she said.
The race also had two mandatory two-hour rests in Homer, which made for two hours of rest more than teams received in 2011.
“With the changes they made, it’s an incredibly dog-friendly race,” she said.
For handlers, it was a little more challenging. They had to drive back and forth from checkpoint to checkpoint, not getting as much sleep Saturday night as they might liked, Robertia said.
Her dogs had the opposite problem.
“A lot of the race takes place during the heat of the day, and my dogs like sleeping during the heat of the day,” she said.
The new route offered musher-friendly checkpoints, Robertia said.
“The checkpoints this year were great,” Robertia said.
The spectators cheering in Homer, and the hot chili, hot gumbo, and welcoming atmosphere at Freddies made the race especially enjoyable, Robertia said.
“The race organization is extremely professional and they put out a ‘Grade A’ spread from start to finish,” Kaduce said.
The weather, which hovered around zero degrees Sunday, was warmer than where he trains in the Interior, Kaduce said.
King said the warmth was a welcome change from Denali — it was a “real treat” to feel temperatures warmer than minus 20 for the first time in months.
The weather was just about right for her dogs, Robertia said.
Robertia, who won the T200’s Humanitarian Award last year, was the first musher to cross the finish line with her whole team.
“I think it’s important for all of them to get to finish races if they can,” Robertia said.
Robertia’s team was lead into the finish by Penny, the usual leader of Rogues Gallery Kennel, and a newer addition to the team named Wolf. Robertia and her husband, Joseph, nursed Wolf back to running-condition after adopting him a few years ago. Wolf had a shattered leg, and had to rebuild his racing muscles. Last year he finished the T200 with Colleen. Running lead is more difficult, she said, so getting him upfront was great.
As of press time Sunday, finishers also included Didier Moggia in sixth place, Jodi Bailey in seventh and Anna Berington in eighth. 2011 champion Dee Dee Jonrowe scratched Saturday. For full results visit http://www.tustumena200.com/t200-results.html.
Molly Dischner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.