As many Alaskans can tell you, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race traces its origins to a famous serum run from Nenana to Nome. Like the Iditarod, the Kenai Peninsula's Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race has its roots in a similar, if less urgent dog-powered trek.
Set for its 18th running this Saturday, the T-200 began as a way for area mushers to run their precious cargo into the hills. However, instead of life-giving serum, the original Tustumena mushers were carrying a tonic of a different sort: beer.
"As the story goes, (local mushers) would go up and camp and party along the way. They brought their beer and stayed up there a couple of days," said Nancy Kitchen, president of the Tustumena 200 board of directors.
The race itself was the brainchild of legendary Kasilof musher and 1984 Iditarod champion Dean Osmar, who was looking for a way to get his son, Tim, qualified for the Iditarod.
"Dean initiated it so Timmy could get his miles," said Kitchen, referring to the Iditarod requirement that entrants have 500 race miles under their belts before entering the big race.
Kitchen remembers fondly the early days, and one close finish in particular.
"I watched from the Decanter Inn when Tim (Osmar) lost by the length of the lake there," she said.
That race, in 1988, was won by David Scheer and is still remembered as the most exciting finish in the race's history. Despite losing, the younger Osmar, now 34, went on to become the winningest T-200 musher, with five first-place finishes to his credit.
The first T-200 was run in 1984. From 1984 through 1994, the race saw 10 to 15 mushers compete annually. In those days, the race course was laid out to start at the Tustumena Lodge and run around Tustumena Lake. Today, the course covers 200 miles, with competitors heading out from the lodge and into the Caribou Hills to the east.
There are four race checkpoints along the way. Teams head southeast from the lodge to the Four Corners checkpoint, then on to George Eischens' cabin at Caribou Lake. From there, mushers head back to the northwest to the checkpoint at the Lost Creek Lodge, followed by the Clam Shell Lodge checkpoint, where a mandatory layover is taken. Mushers then retrace their trail back to the Tustumena Lodge.
In 1994, the race was reorganized under the leadership of Evy Gebhardt and Suzie Cook, co-owner of the Tustumena Lodge, who formed the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Racing Association. Since then, the race has gained a reputation as one of the top sled dog races in the world and is considered a key tune-up for the Iditarod. In fact, the T-200 is now an official qualifier for "The Last Great Race."
Last year's race saw Denali Park musher and three-time Iditarod champion Jeff King win in a near-record time of 26 hours, 22 minutes, beating out five-time Iditarod winner Rick Swenson of Two Rivers by 1 hour, 48 minutes. It was King's second consecutive T-200 victory, and he'll be back to defend his back-to-back titles in this year's race.
Kasilof musher Paul Gebhardt holds the current record time of 26 hours, 4 minutes.
In 1994, the winner of the race received $380. Today, the race has grown into one of the premier sled dog races in Alaska with a purse in excess of $25,000 -- the largest purse offered in the nation for a race of this length.
In addition to countless local volunteers and more than 50 official sponsors, the race has more than its share of local mushers. This year's field includes at least six mushers who call the peninsula home, including Jon Little, James Wheeler and Lance Mackey of Kasilof; Jason Mackey of Ninilchik; Mitch Seavey of Seward; and Carmen Perzichino of Sterling.
In all, the field is expected to have at least 23 entries, with an additional six teams entered in the "Little T" race, which runs concurrent to the 200, but is half the length. However, the field traditionally draws a handful of last-minute entries, according to Nema Arndt, T-200 secretary.
"Historically, we get a couple more just before the race. Word gets around," said Arndt.
Joining the peninsula mushers on the trail and expected to challenge them for the victory is perennial Iditarod contender Ramey Smyth of Big Lake, winner of the 1999 T-200, who has been called the master of the 200-miler, as well as veteran mushers Vern Halter of Willow and Bill Cotter of Nenana. Both Cotter and Halter have previous top-three Iditarod finishes to their credit. These mushers and others will be competing for the honor of being "top dog" on the peninsula, not to mention a cash prize substantially greater than the case of beer that was given to the winner in the early days of the race.
The 2002 Tustumena 200 gets under way at 10 a.m. Saturday with a ceremonial start near the baseball field in Kenai. There, mushers will be teamed with youths from the Make-a-Wish Foundation, as well as other charitable organizations. The teams will run approximately 3 miles along Marathon Road.
From there, mushers pack up and travel to Kasilof, where the official restart takes place at 3 p.m. at the Tustumena Lodge, Mile 111 of the Sterling Highway.
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