As the 20th annual Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race prepares to kick off Jan. 25, many big-name mushers already have signed up, despite no end in sight for one of the warmest, driest winters on record.
More than 20 people have registered for the race, including many big guns like Jeff King, who has placed first in the race on multiple occasions; Paul Gebhardt, who still holds the record for the fastest time of 26 hours, 4 minutes (or about 7.7 mph) from his 1996 win; Ramey Smyth the T-200 champion from last year; and Martin Buser, the 2002 Iditarod champion.
More people are expected to enter as the start date gets closer. Nancy Kitchen, the president of the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race Association, said she believes some may be holding off because they're waiting for better weather.
Kitchen said she's confident the race will still be run, it will just have more challenges.
"We're going to have different trails this year due to the conditions from the November floods," she said. "There's a lot of open water, washouts and downed trees out there right now."
Dean Osmar, a former Iditarod champion and the man whom many credit with the T-200's inception, agrees this will be a challenging year. He and Gebhardt have been doing reconnaissance to assess the trail conditions.
"It's not great, but there's enough snow to run it," Osmar said. "The lack of snow just makes it tougher on the mushers, the dogs and the equipment."
He's not too worried, though. He's seen weather similar to this racing season in years past.
"One year we had to postpone it a week, and that could be done again," Osmar said. "Or the race could be rerouted around the washouts."
Roy Hoekema, vice president of the race association, was on the same page as Osmar.
"We're watching it really closely because we need lead time to shut it off for the out-of-state competitors," Hoekema said. "Right now there is a minimal amount of snow, but we're praying for more."
In addition to keeping his fingers crossed for snow, Hoekema has been busy working with numerous mushers, as well as the Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers snowmachine club to get the trails cleaned up.
"It's been a busy, busy operation," he said in reference to all the trail clearing and maintenance that's been done.
Martin Buser isn't sweating it yet. Despite not having run in the T-200 since the mid-1980s, he's not bothered by the weather.
"I tend not to get nervous about things I can't control," he said. "I also trust the race committee to put on a good race."
Like many mushers, Buser is familiar with the reputation the T-200 has for its safety. Many racers find the emphasis placed on trails and dog safety attractive.
The T-200, the only Iditarod-qualifying race on the peninsula, will be limited to 40 entrants this year due to its growing popularity. In the past, it has drawn mushers from as far away as Germany, Japan, Switzerland and Spain.
Dr. Nels Anderson will be this year's race marshal. He will replace the late Ed Borden, an Iditarod veteran.
Dr. Tim Bowser will be the head veterinarian this year. Vets will be positioned at all checkpoints.
The ceremonial start will begin at 10 a.m. at the Kenai Chrysler Center -- a major sponsor of the race. The color guard will perform to bagpipe music played by Kasilof resident Taylor Karnitis. Mushers also will give rides to disabled children at the ceremony.
The official race restart will be held at 2 p.m. at the Tustumena Lodge in Kasilof at Mile 111 of the Sterling Highway.
The race has a guaranteed purse of $25,000 and $1,000 for the concurrently run Little T -- a 100-mile out-and-back loop from the Tustumena Lodge to Caribou Lake and back.
For more information about the race, consult the official Web site at www.tustumena200.com. To volunteer for the race contact Tustumena 200 Race Headquarters, P.O. Box 220, Kasilof, AK 99610, or address e-mails to firstname.lastname@example.org or call Nancy Kitchen at 262-3270.
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