Dries Jacobs of Bruges, Belgium drops onto the Gakona River during the Copper Basin 300 Sled Dog Race two weeks ago. Jacobs and friend Sam Deltour from Sint-Kruis, Belgium, have been training with 2004 Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey and his family, and are signed up to compete in the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race this weekend.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
As the Tustumena 200 has grown over the years, so too has the diversity of the field of entrants. No longer do mushers hail only from the Kenai Peninsula. Now entrants come from all over Alaska, the Lower 48 and beyond, as is the case this year with mushers signed up from Norway, Italy and two from Belgium.
"I'm looking forward to it. That's for sure," said Sam Deltour, 22, from Sint-Kruis, Belgium who along with his buddy, Dries Jacobs, 27, from Bruges, Belgium has been training with 2004 Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey, his son, Danny, and the rest of the Seavey clan for several months, after their summer contract was extended.
"They were only supposed to come for three months, April through June, but they were some of the best we had, so we offered them the opportunity to stick around through the winter and runs some puppy teams," said Danny Seavey.
This may not sound like a tall task, but running puppies for the Seaveys means more than just putting in a few moderate training runs. Handlers will spend long hours with their dogs, covering hundreds to thousands of miles, with all of the hardwork culminating in March when they get the opportunity to run the Last Great Race on Earth the Iditarod.
"We knew if we were going to get them to Iditarod in one year, we were going to have to have them do as much as they could on a dogsled," Seavey said.
While the two Belgians didn't lack drive, at least one of them lacked experience.
"Dries had worked for Lloyd Gilbertson (an Iditarod veteran from Michigan), so he had a head start, but Sam had hardly ever been on a dog sled. Just a four-dog team a couple of times, that was it," Seavey said.
So the Seaveys started teaching them, beginning with the basics and working up to progressively more difficult challenges, such as the Gin Gin 200 Sled Dog Race in Paxson back in December and the Copper Basin 300 in Glennallen two weeks ago. The Belgians used these two races as their "qualifiers" since Iditarod requires mushers to have completed 500 miles of racing, and between the 50 mph winds they encountered in the Gin Gin and temperatures which never rose about minus 30 in the Copper Basin, the two mushers said they gained invaluable experience.
"I definitely feel more confident. I don't feel like an inexperienced rookie anymore," Jacobs said.
Part of the reason for this change is because he began to experience distance racing dilemmas that, until he raced, he had only heard about.
"There were a million things the Seaveys would tell us about, like seeing a dog's gait change. I had never seen that until I had run 200 miles, but now I've seen it and know what it looks like," he said.
Jacobs said he also learned a lot about coping with extreme weather.
"The coldest it gets in Belgium is typically 25 degrees, so it's different. It's much colder than we're used to and it's a more life-threatening cold here, especially when it is minus 40," he said.
Despite all the hardships, the two said they love racing sled dogs.
"On the one hand it's the toughest thing I've ever done, but on the other it is the thing I like the most. There's nothing like it. Just begin out there with the dogs, traveling checkpoint to checkpoint, it's very special. It's the greatest thing I've ever done," Deltour said.
Now with their qualifiers out of the way, the two Belgians said they are looking forward to running the T-200 just for additional experience and the fun of it. Also, in the other races they have done so far, they have run some of Mitch Seavey's older dogs, but for the T-200 they will be running the 2-year old puppy teams they'll have in Iditarod, which they said they are eagerly anticipating, too.
"Now that the qualifiers are out of the way, Iditarod seems much more real, and I'm looking forward to seeing how the puppies do in this race and which ones will be hotshots. Sometimes the ones you think will be hot don't work out, but other dogs you never expected to step up, will be stars," Jacobs said.
Seavey said by the time to two Belgians arrive at the starting line of Iditarod, they'll each have more than 4,000 miles behind the sled, but time in on the runners would not have been enough to get them through what they've already accomplished.
"They were dedicated and worked liked maniacs. We've been really impressed with them," Seavey said.
The Belgians said their passion and the long hours on a sled did help mold them into mushers, but they cited one more source for their success.
"We also had the Seaveys to teach us," Deltour said.
Deltour and Jacobs are only two of the 25 mushers signed up for the Tustumena 200. For more information on the T-200, visit the race's Web site at www.tustumena200.com. This year's race is scheduled to start on Saturday at 11 a.m. in front of the Tustumena Lodge in Kasilof.
Joseph Robertia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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