What do you get when you put together 110 dogs, 33 mushers, 100-plus volunteers and 10,000 pounds of dog food and supplies? You get the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race -- an event hailed by many mushers as the toughest mid-distance race in the state.
Although the T-200 doesn't begin for another two weeks, this past Friday at midnight was the the sign-up deadline for the race.
"We've got a good field this year," said T-200 board president Roy Hoekema. "The deadline's come and gone and we're still getting calls from people trying to sign up."
There will be 26 mushers vying for the guaranteed $25,000 purse. Twenty-four of those mushers are Alaskan, with nine being Kenai Peninsula based, including Jon Little of Kasilof, Mitch Seavey of Sterling, Eric Nyholm of Sterling, Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof, Jason Mackey of Kasilof, Tim Osmar of Ninilchik, Lance Mackey of Kasilof, Ed Pearson of Kasilof and Brennon Norden of Kasilof.
The only two mushers from outside of Alaska are international competitors Rudi Niggemeier hailing from Germany and Dodo Perri from Italy.
"Having international mushers makes it even more interesting and it shows the popularity of this race is becoming worldwide," Hoekema said.
Absent from the mushers list was Ramey Smyth, who would have been the defending champion from 2002.
"His younger brother Cim Smyth has entered, though," said T-200 board member Nancy Kitchen. "Ramey was on the fence as to whether he should or shouldn't enter right up until the deadline."
Kitchen said the elder Smyth decided not to enter since his dogs already have been in numerous races this season, and he didn't want to "bang them up" any further.
Jason Mackey, who won the Sportsmanship Award in the last T-200, said it's tough to say who may have the team to beat this year, since there's so many skilled dog drivers competing.
"The field of contenders this year is phenomenal -- the best of the best," said Mackey. "Jeff (King) is just a master of mushing, (Martin) Buser's got some fast dogs, Lance (Mackey) has got some strong dogs and will definitely be going for a top five finish. Timmy Osmar has always got something up his sleeve, and he knows the hills like the back of his hand, and Paul (Gebhardt) has been putting in the trail, and he always does good in this race."
Adding to the difficulty of predicting who may come out on top is the fact that due to last year's severe flooding some sections of the trail will be rerouted for this year's race.
"The flooding has made it impossible to stick to the original trail, so everyone will kind of be rookies since the trail's not the same," Mackey said.
As to what Mackey's strategy will be, he said he's excited to race in this year's competition but will be running conservatively this year.
"With the Iditarod only six weeks away, I'm going to be very careful," he said.
This will be his first year in the Last Great Race, and although he's running a young team, he's got a 10-dog core of athletes that he's not taking any chances with.
"We're already pushing 2,000 miles (total) for the season, so we just need to keep up the conditioning," Mackey said. "The dogs need to just have fun and enjoy this race. There's no sense pushing them too hard and risking a shoulder injury."
Although the T-200 is the main attraction, an additional seven mushers will be competing in the 100-mile Little T race, which carries a $1,000 purse.
Four of the seven mushers are from the peninsula, including Jeff Szarzi of Homer, Jane Faulkner of Soldotna, Will Faulkner of Clam Gulch and Colleen Robertia of Kasilof.
"It's a good race, too," said Kitchen. "The Little T has an 8- to 10-dog limit, as opposed to the 12- to 14-dog limit of the T-200, so it gets a lot mushers that have small kennels, or are new to racing, or that are running puppies for someone else. It gives them a chance to get experience, have fun and win a few dollars."
This year's race also will debut a new race central, which is equipped with radios and computers. Personnel inside will be in constant communication with all checkpoints along the race, as well as updating the T-200 Web site with musher standings.
Race packets already have been sent out to mushers, and the trails have begun to be groomed, but Kitchen said they still need more volunteers.
"We've got enough people for the checkpoints in the hills, but we need more people interested in handling and directing traffic down around the lodge," she said.
No experience is necessary to volunteer. Anyone interested should contact Kitchen by calling 262-3270.
For more information on the T-200 or the Little T, visit the Web site at www.tustumena200.com. The races are scheduled for Jan. 31 through Feb. 2.
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