To mushers like Paul Gebhardt and Dean Osmar, the Kuskokwim 300 sled dog race is going to be unlike most of the races they attend.
"You could call it a family reunion of sorts," said Gebhardt, a Kasilof musher who is coming off a scratch in last weekend's Copper Basin 300. "It is kind of a good time, and we are quite a bit more laid back at a 300-mile race than we would be at a long-distance one."
For both Gebhardt and Osmar, the this weekend's Kusko is going to be a time to compete not just with mushing legends like Charlie Boulding, last year's Kusko champ and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, but also a time to compete against mentors and friends.
"It will be a fun race with Rick Swenson and Joe Garnie," said Osmar, of his fellow mushing veterans. "I haven't raced against them since I won the 1984 Iditarod. It will be fun to see them on the trail."
Joining Boulding, Garnie and five-time Iditarod champion Swenson on the race trail this weekend will be a pair of three-time Iditarod champions, Martin Buser and Jeff King, and another Yukon Quest champ, Ramy Brooks. Both Osmar and Gebhardt said the Kusko brings opportunity to visit with friends as well as the chance to be competitive without needing to win.
"I love running with those guys. It is the best competition in the world," Gebhardt said. "Makes it fun to run against names like that and teams like that. The race will be fun no matter what the outcome."
It has been a strange training year for mushers in the area due to the unseasonable weather. Both Osmar and Gebhardt have been training in the Caribou Hills where the snow has managed to accumulate even with the adverse weather conditions.
Still, Osmar said he doesn't think training conditions will make the difference in the Kusko, which runs from Bethel to Aniak and back, along the Kuskokwim River.
"The guy with the best team is going to win it," he said. "It was warm last year and Charlie won it, he is from the Interior. During other warm years Jeff King won it. Weather doesn't favor one team or another."
With the prospect of a $20,000 winner's payday, neither musher would complain about a victory.
"I am just going to look for a good clean run and get some miles for my dogs," Gebhardt said. "I am going to see how we do when we get there, see how it all stacks up."
Even Osmar wouldn't mind a first-place finish.
"Well, I am going to try to win," Osmar said. "I have a very young team and there is some very heavy competition with Jeff King and Paul Gebhardt along with a half-a-dozen other good teams. I am going to run according to my dogs. If they stick with the lead teams, then that is where we will run. If they need that extra bit of rest, then that is what they will get."
Race coordinators for the Kusko are expecting ideal conditions for the race, which gets under way Saturday in Bethel.
"The weather is looking good right now," race manager Beverly Hoffman said during a telephone interview. "There is snow in the forecast and we are hoping for a nice 15-degree day with a nice trail."
Even if their dogs run well and the weather is nice, both Osmar and Gebhardt have an additional obstacle to overcome. During training runs with their teams, both mushers were injured, although both expect to be well enough to compete.
"We're both going in a little gimped up," Osmar said. "Paul injured his Achilles tendon and I separated my shoulder along with doing damage to my rotator cuff. It is real sore, but I am going to be able to race."
The injury forced Gebhardt to scratch last weekend. But he said he plans on toughing it out as well.
"I am ready to go, I guess," he said. "If it really starts bothering me bad, I will just ride in the sled."
Osmar credited Gebhardt's skills, but joked he was not intimidated by them.
"Paul is a very good musher. In fact I hope he gets second -- and I beat him," Osmar said. "We run together in the (Caribou) hills and we got pretty much the same team when it comes to speed. We'll have to see how it all shakes out."
Both peninsula mushers will be looking to get some extra miles on dogs that will compete in the Iditarod in March. Gebhardt will be looking to those dogs to help him improve on his second-place finish last year, while Osmar's team will pull his son, Tim, to Nome.
"I have three main lead dogs," Osmar said. "Shark, Fancy and Gimpy. They have a lot of drive, they want to do it and they enjoy it. I have some high hopes for them and am eager to see how they do in this race."
The mushers will also get a chance to see how their competition is faring.
"I pretty much know how most of those guys are going to race," Gebhardt said. "It's nice to see their teams and the condition they are in. It's just good to see what they have to offer."
Additionally, Osmar views the race as another opportunity to soak up the excitement and joy of mushing.
"I've been mushing about 20 years. It's pretty much an expensive hobby," he said. "But it keeps me young at heart -- I'm young at heart anyway."
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