Like all sled dog races, the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race would not be possible without the support of countless sponsors and volunteers.
Dogs and mushers get the accolades, but it's the support of tireless volunteer personnel who ensure the race will be a success. Without them, the race would still be nothing more than the weekend beer run into the Caribou Hills that organizers say it started out as.
Volunteers handle such tasks as directing traffic, handling dogs, cooking meals for the pre- and post-race banquets, marking trails and looking out for the welfare of the animals.
"Everybody not involved as either a musher or a sponsor is a volunteer," said Nema Arndt, T-200 secretary.
Arndt added that this year's race will proceed due to the help of "easily 100" community volunteers.
Each musher is required to provide basic gear for his or her team, but it's up to individual volunteers to mark the trail, haul hay for the dogs, record times and handle the dogs at the starting line.
Organized groups also volunteer their time in support of the race. The Alaska Young Marines will help out this year by presenting the colors at the opening ceremonies, as well as handling snow fencing along the trail. Without such help, mushers would have a much more difficult time navigating the sometimes tricky course, which winds its way through the Caribou Hills near Kasilof.
The Alaska State Defense Force has also agreed to help out, volunteering to direct traffic at the race site.
At the starting line, volunteer dog handlers must maintain order and control in excess of 300 anxious and energetic canine athletes. These volunteers help maintain some degree of calm among the inherent chaos of the sled dog race start.
Volunteer veterinarians also play a vital role in the race. Vets are stationed at each checkpoint and along the trail. Additionally, each dog is given a pre-race checkup before being allowed out on the course. The veterinarians help ensure that the dogs are in good condition and that the mushers are providing proper care.
The race trail is marked by volunteers who are responsible for keeping the mushers on course. Orange stakes must be placed along the trail so teams don't end up scattered across the peninsula. The all-volunteer T-200 race board is responsible for coordinating and carrying out the hauling of stakes via snowmachine to positions along the trail.
One volunteer who has been with the race since the beginning is race marshal Ed Borden. Borden got his start with the T-200 in 1984, when the race began.
"That was the first year the Iditarod required 200 miles to compete," he said. "We just basically went out and made our own race."
This year, Borden will spend several days marking the race trail in Kasilof and the ceremonial start trail in Kenai.
When asked about his status as a volunteer, Borden just laughed.
"No, nobody gets paid for any of this," he said.
A mix of sponsor money, musher determination and volunteer muscle allows the race to succeed each year.
Financial support for the race is provided by sponsors. Major sponsors for this year's race include Kenai Chrysler Center and the Kenai Peninsula Tourism and Marketing Council. Additionally, there are more than 50 area business and individual sponsors that donate their time, resources and money to the event. The individual often mushers rely on sponsors and volunteer help as well to provide gear, food and other racing essentials, such as harnesses and booties for dog paws.
While the dog teams racing in the T-200 will be in the spotlight Saturday, it's the tireless volunteers behind the scenes who make the race possible.
"Without the volunteers, there wouldn't be a race," said Arndt.
This year's race gets under way with a ceremonial start at 10 a.m. Saturday near the Kenai Chrysler Center.
The official start of the race is at 3 p.m. at Tustumena Lodge in Kasilof.
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