A lone musher trains his team of huskies. Several mushers already have headed to the Caribou Hills to train for the upcoming Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
Friday was the deadline to sign up for the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race, and from the field of mushers entered, race organizers are expecting a dog-gone good race.
"It's going to be a spectacular race this year," said Kimberly King, T-200 race association president.
As of Saturday, 32 mushers had officially signed up for the T-200 and a few more mushers had called to say their entries were in the mail.
"We've got an extremely competitive field of mushers. We've got four Iditarod champions Mitch Seavey, Dean Osmar, Martin Buser and Jeff King and we have Aliy Zirkle, the first woman to win the Yukon Quest," King said.
There's also potential for a fifth past Iditarod musher to be entered Gerald Riley, the 1976 champion of the Last Great Race.
"He (Riley) has paid his entry fee for the race, and he's mailed the rest of his paper work, we're just waiting for it to arrive," King said.
In addition, this year's race will feature several mushers who have won the T-200 in years past, according to King, including Kasilof musher Paul Gebhardt, Ninilchik musher Tim Osmar and the defending champ from last year, Cim Smyth from Big Lake.
Rachael Scdoris, a legally blind musher from Bend, Ore., also has signed up for this year's race.
"We're excited she choose the T-200 as her first Alaskan race. It will be a good challenge for her and should really give her a taste of what racing here is like," King said.
Tyrell Seavey will be Scdoris's visual interpreter traveling ahead of her on a separate dog sled to warn her about trail dangers ahead, but King said the specific details of how the two mushers will communicate throughout the race are being worked out between them and race officials.
Not to be outdone by the T-200's field of competitors, the Little T a 100-mile, out-and-back race that runs simultaneously with the T-200 also has one of the largest fields of mushers on record with 13 mushers signed up as of Saturday.
In years past, the T-200 served as the professional-class race, while the T-100 was considered amateur class. Although, with fewer dogs, less mandatory rest, no dog drops allowed and having to carry all their food and gear with them, many mushers have said these challenges make up for the 100 mile less distance of the Little T, and make the "amateur" classification of the race debatable, King said.
King cited other reasons why the line between these two race classes is starting to blur.
"Several professional mushers are starting to use the Little T as a training race, since 100 miles is enough for them with other bigger races like the Yukon Quest so close by," she said.
Kasilof-based musher Jon Little is one example. A past T-200 veteran, he's running the Little T this year, just two weeks before he attempts to drive dogs a distance of 1,000 miles in his first Yukon Quest.
"Some mushers also want to run two teams," King said.
Mushers frequently have an "A team" they competitively race with in the T-200, while relying on a handler to take a "B team" of young, up-and-coming dogs in the Little T, running them a lesser distance to give them race experience without a trial by fire.
Funny River musher Jason Mackey is a T-200 veteran who will take Paul Gebhardt's puppies in the Little T. Jason Young of Kasilof who won the Little T in 2002 is another example, as he will run puppies for Lance Mackey's Comeback Kennel, while Mackey himself will take his A team in the T-200.
The guaranteed minimum purse for this year's T-200 is $25,000 but there will be a change to the pay-out distribution compared to years past.
"The winnings were top heavy to the winner, but paid disproportionately to other top places, so we talked with mushers to get their comments on it and with Bob Favretto of Kenai Chrysler (a major sponsor for the race) to get his input, and everyone was on board to restructure it," King said.
Rather than paying out $10,000 for first place, the winner this year will receive $7,500, or 30 percent of the purse, and there will be an increased percentage payout for second through 10th place. The Little T will remain the same with a guaranteed minimum purse of $1,000.
Despite warm temperatures that led to rainy weather and icy trails for much of the training season, King said the recent cold snap and snow accumulation have benefited the race course.
"The trail is runnable now and we still have two weeks for it to shape up even more. We're hoping for more snow, or at least that the current weather holds until the race," King said.
If warm weather does return, causing havoc with the trail, King said the race could be postponed a week to wait for the weather to improve.
"Safety for the dogs and safety for the mushers is our priority, and we wouldn't put either out on an unsafe trail," King said.
The T-200 and Little T are scheduled to start Jan. 29. The ceremonial start is at 10 a.m. at Kenai Chrysler Center on the Kenai Spur Highway. The race restart is at 2 p.m. at the Tustumena Lodge in Kasilof, Mile 111 of the Sterling Highway.
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