Organizers of the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race prepare for its 20th consecutive year, and although the race continues to grow in popularity, its organizational team is still a grassroots operation that has always had an epicenter of community-based teamwork, cooperation and support.
From its inception back in 1984, the race has been shrouded in folklore. Although most people consider Dean Osmar responsible for its creation, how it began still varies considerably depending on who is asked.
Some have claimed the race began as a beer run into the Caribou Hills. Several local mushers would use sleds and dog power to get to secluded areas in the hills where they could camp and party without any interruptions. The first one to the campsite won a case of beer, as the story goes.
Others have claimed Osmar began the race for a different reason -- to help his son Tim get sufficient miles under his belt to meet the 500-mile requirement for becoming an Iditarod contender.
To get to the bottom of a story, it's best to go right to the source -- Osmar himself.
"It was never a beer run," Osmar said. "I don't know how that rumor got started."
Abby Chadwick has a round of hot chocolate in hand to keep warm while watching the race a couple years ago.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
As to the rumor of the race being started to help his son, that's not entirely true either, Osmar said. The problem with Tim entering the Iditarod was more about Tim's age than it was his mileage.
Contenders for The Last Great Race needed to be 18 years old. Tim was only 17 years old, but could be permitted to race if three veteran mushers vouched for his experience with their signatures. Tim was quickly able to get three signatures, and as the more senior Osmar remembers it, he wasn't even one of them.
No, instead of a bustle for booze or an act of nepotism, the race had a much more humble beginning, according to the elder Osmar.
"There was just a need for a 200-mile race here on the peninsula," Osmar said. "Racers here needed a long, tough race to prepare them for the Iditarod and the T-200 is the toughest qualifying race in the state, if not the country."
Osmar spoke of another race from Soldotna to Hope that had preceded the T-200 by close to a decade, but the race had been disbanded due to logistics and other problems.
"It wasn't just me (that started it)," Osmar said. "I was involved, but there were several mushers who also worked on it and put in trails."
Ramey Smyth mushes to a victory in the 1999 race.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Year after year the race has grown in size, popularity and prestige and the spirit of teamwork has continued to grow as well. This cooperative effort can still be seen today. An official Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race Association was formed in 1996 with the purpose of organizing, arranging and conducting the race, but the event is made possible through the efforts of hundreds of volunteers, sponsors and other participants.
"Without volunteers we wouldn't have a race," said John Cook, part owner of the Tustumena Lodge at Mile 111 of the Sterling Highway, where the race starts and ends.
In addition to giving the time and space each year to put up with a bunch of noisy dogs in the parking lot, and sometimes noisier people, John and his wife, Suzy Cook, contribute to the race in other ways as well.
Suzy, along with Evy Gebhardt, are credited not only with establishing the T-200 Sled Dog Race Association, they also are given the bulk of the praise for transforming the small-town race into a world-renowned competition and an official qualifier for the Iditarod.
Suzy also is responsible for organizing the T-200 poster contest, which incorporates the artwork of children from schools on the peninsula.
"Kids, kids, kids," said John Cook, slamming his fist to the table to emphasize the point like a judge banging his gavel. "Kids are the bottom line and seeing them enjoy the race is my favorite part of doing this."
Kids are likewise one of the primary reasons for the support that comes from Kenai Chrysler Center, according to Bob Favretto, owner of the dealership.
"I jumped in with both feet," Favretto said. "It's seeing the kids, giving to the community, and the high energy of the dogs that drew me in."
Arne Grisham stays bundle up for warmth while photographing the 1999 race.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
More than 60 businesses, clubs, organizations and individuals sponsor the T-200, but Kenai Chrysler Center and the Peninsula Winter Games are two of the biggest sponsors.
The ceremonial start of the race, in which children with disabilities from all over Alaska are given the opportunity to meet and get rides with mushers competing in the event, also takes place at the dealership.
Kids aren't the only reason people are drawn to participate in the race. Although many mushers enjoy spending time with the children, they also enjoy sinking their teeth into a challenge such as that offered by the T-200.
This year's race has some big names already signed up. The prestige and challenge offered from vying against such seasoned professionals as Ramey Smyth, Paul Gebhardt and Jeff King -- all of whom have placed first in this race before -- likely will draw a large field of competitors. And there's always the $25,000 purse, the highest award amount for any race this size nationwide, for additional incentive.
Martin Buser, the 2002 Iditarod Champion, has signed up. This will be his second time racing in the T-200.
He speaks fondly of the joy it brings him to share his dog team with the kids at the ceremonial start. He's also looking forward to seeing and competing against many old friends, but said it will be hectic for him since he'll be coming straight down from the Kuskokwim 300 in Bethel.
"It's a tremendous race," said Buser. "I'm looking forward to the challenge and the change of scenery."
Running the Klondike 300 and the Copper Basin 300 year after year was becoming too predictable, Buser said. He needed a change in venue.
"There are three things to a successful race. Great trails, great volunteers and a purse," Buser said. "The T-200 knows that and gets all three -- that's why they attract the good dog teams."
Hearing accolades like those from mushers can only be music to the ears of Nancy Kitchen, the president of the T-200 race association. She knows firsthand how difficult it can be to make the whole race come together.
Dogs don booties before the start of the race in 1999.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
"Some people work their butts off to make sure things come off right," said Kitchen. She's not complaining, though, because she loves what she does. She's been involved with the race since 1987 and has served as an officer since 1997.
Kitchen said she hopes the snowball effect that's been happening with the race will continue in future years.
"We want to keep making it bigger and better," she said. "We're hoping to push for even more sponsorship next year to raise the purse again and spread it out more."
Roy Hoekema, vice president of the association, agrees with Kitchen, but also believes it's word of mouth that keeps the race so challenging, as the T-200 is known among mushers as one of the toughest races of its distance around.
"We do have a good size purse, but it's really been in the advertising," said Hoekema. "They know it's true that it's a good course and a good race."
Hoekema and his wife, Patti, who also serves as treasurer for the association, said they fell in love with the race shortly after moving here from the Seattle area in 1999.
"We're as happy as clams at high tide to be a part of something so spectacular," Hoekema said. "We enjoy the satisfaction that comes from getting to know the community through it."
It has been through the labor and hard work of many mushers, sponsors, volunteers and others that has transformed the T-200 from a local competition for hometown heroes to a major race on the professional tour of many competitors from all over the world.
"I'm crazy, I guess," Kitchen replied with a chuckle when asked why she opts to perform these tasks every year. "I just got hooked. It's the dogs and the people and the excitement. It's difficult to put into words, but it just takes a hold of you."
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