This year's Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race has a diverse field, and while many spectators will be eager to watch for the veteran mushers, it's important to not lose sight that even the big name mushers were once wide-eyed rookies, much like 20-year-old Shaynee Seipke will be in this T-200.
"This is my seventh year mushing and I've done quite a few races back home, but this will be the longest," she said.
Seipke hails from Gladwin, Mich., but has been training locally all season under the tutelage of Dean Osmar of Clam Gulch, the 1984 Iditarod champion and a man who many credit with the inception of the T-200.
Long before Seipke met Osmar she had already developed a love for the dog-powered sport. She attributes her start to some family relatives having a chance encounter with the founder of the Iditarod, Joe Redington, while visiting Alaska.
"My aunt and uncle met Joe, and they heard all about the Iditarod. After their visit they came over and told us about it, and brought their Malamute, Kody, over," she said. "We hooked him up to a sled and he pulled me around. I was only 9 years old, but I was hooked after that. I got my own dogs five years later."
As Seipke got older, she worked for various other sprint and distance mushers, and raced on her own, but until she came to Alaska, her longest event was less than 100 miles.
"I ran the Midnight Run back home, and that's 91 miles," she said. "Up here, I ran the Alaska Excursion 120 in Knik a few weeks ago, but that was split up over two days."
It's not only the length of the T-200 that's daunting to most rookies, but the race's reputation of being "the toughest 200 miles in Alaska" as well, and Seipke said there would be no denying she has a few butterflies about competing this weekend.
"I'm a little nervous. I was really tired after the 91-mile race, so doubling that will be hard," she said, "but I'm really excited about it too. I've read about this race for years. Also, I'll be racing with Lance Mackey, Jeff King, Dee Dee Jonrowe -- people I've seen on TV, so that is really humbling, but really neat."
Seipke said even with the big names in the event, she feels good about her chances of holding her own, and part of what keeps her confident is that she has done almost all of her training this season in the Caribou Hills, and much of it on the T-200 race course.
"I've seen quite a bit of the trail, so I feel confident about that," she said. "I know what to watch out for and what the dangerous spots are, so I feel good about my chances. I've also gotten into good shape by running up all those hills during training."
Seipke said she has other strengths as well.
"We've also done a lot of training at night, and a good part of the race will be at night, so I've got that going for me, too," she said.
Seipke said she has also refined a lot of her camping skills, and dog massage and care techniques from training with Osmar so often. She will also be taking a team mostly made up of seasoned dogs with a few youngsters to be evaluated for longer races later in the year.
"I know the dogs can do it," she said. "It's just if I can get the routine down to get them through it."
With so much pre-race planning and preparation, Seipke said she believes she'll see the finish line, and she's comfortable with the reality that several others mushers will see it before her.
"For me, personally, the goal is to finish," she said. "I'm sure Dean would like me to come in as high as I can, but I'll be happy if I just finish."
Seipke said if she does succeed, it will give her good insight into what direction she would like to with her mushing career.
"My dream is to one day do the Iditarod and Yukon Quest," she said. "So, if I can finish this -- and enjoy it -- then I'll know I can continue on."
Joseph Robertia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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