Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof poses with one of his Iditarod dogs named Thor. Gebhardt will serve as the official race marshal for this year's Tustumena 200.
Photo courtesy of Evy Gebhardt
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of five stories leading up to the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race starting Saturday. Tuesday’s story is on sled dog nutrition.
Kasilof musher Paul Gebhardt has experienced many different aspects of the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race over the years, but this season he will participate in the event in an entirely new way.
Rather than standing on sled runners attempting to drive his dogs to a first-place finish, Gebhardt will monitor others attempting to do so as he serves as the official race marshal for this year’s event.
“It’ll be a different way to see the race,” he said.
For those unfamiliar with sled dog sports, a race marshal’s role is similar to that of a referee or umpire in other sports, according to Gebhardt.
He said he will be in charge of the competition from the time the first dog leaves the chute until the last weary musher crosses the finish line.
“Basically, I’m just there to make sure there’s a level playing field and everyone on it is playing fair. If there are any problems or disputes, I weigh out the facts and make a final decision,” he said.
Gebhardt said he isn’t expecting problems, though, because he intends to make certain everyone on the trail gets all pertinent information up front at the prerace mushers meeting.
“I don’t make rules, but I ensure everyone understands them, and then follows them. So, at the prerace meeting I’ll go over the rules and make sure everyone understands how I interpret them,” he said.
One aspect he intends to emphasize will deal with his interpretation of the protocol for teams passing each other during the race.
“I’ll be a stickler for passing. That one has stuck in my craw for years,” he said.
Gebhardt explained the rule is that when a faster team approaches to within 50 feet of a slower team, “trail” can be called and the team in front is to stop, give the immediate right of way to the faster team, and then not pass them back for at least 15 minutes.
While racing Gebhardt has frequently encountered mushers who just slow down, rather than come to a complete stop, he said.
This can make passing more difficult and even less safe at times if the trail is narrow, he said.
“If the musher behind says you don’t have to stop, you don’t have to. But, if they call ‘trail,’ you’ve got to stop, and I’ll be enforcing that rule,” he said.
Gebhardt said the only exception is if the faster musher calls “trail” on a downhill section or some other area where passing could be dangerous.
In that case, the musher in front may continue in the lead, but only until the first available location to stop safely.
Gebhardt said he will be on the trail on a snowmachine throughout the race, stopping at all the checkpoints to monitor mushers and their teams.
“I’m also hoping to have a few race judges under me to help out, too,” he said.
Gebhardt said he believes he is well suited to serve as the race marshal. As a past competitor he has a clear understanding of the needs of mushers and dogs, and as a past recipient of the sportsmanship award he has the people skills to work with volunteers, veterinarians and others involved in the race.
“I think my past experiences with this race, and other races around the state, will help me be a good race marshal,” he said.
Gebhardt added that while he is happy to help out with the race in this new capacity, he doesn’t intend to make a habit of it.
“I don’t know if I would do it for other races because it takes time away from training, but (my wife) and I have done a lot for this race and we want to continue to see it flourish,” he said.
This year’s T-200 begins Saturday, with the ceremonial start at 10 a.m. at the Kenai Chrysler Center, followed by the official race start at 2 p.m. at the Tustumena Lodge in Kasilof.
Joseph Robertia can be reached at joseph.robertia@ peninsulaclarion.com.
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