As mushers and their teams take to the trail this weekend for the 24th running of the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race, spectators should remember that while it is a race, not everyone in the competition is in it to win it.
"Everytime you say you're entering a race, people say 'I hope you win,' but sometimes that's the furthest thing from your mind," said Jon Little of Kasilof, who this year again will be running with a goal of just getting a team of young dogs to the finish line of a really tough race, as he has frequently done in past T-200s.
Little said whenever he is racing, his goal is to do the best he can and to place as high in the standings as he can, but this doesn't always mean attempting to win.
"This year is a great example of that. We just had another baby, so we leased out several dogs, and now I'm primarily working with 2-year olds and old-timers," he said.
Little said his younger dogs will also be at the front of his team, not buried further back letting the seasoned veterans do all the work, but letting youngsters lead is always a challenge.
"They have a lot of attitude and desire, but not the experience," he said.
As a result he said he may end up taking breaks beyond the one mandatory 8-hour layover, 100 miles into the race.
"I may pull over at Rocky's or somewhere else, and snack them and let them hang out a bit," he said.
Little said this tactic is nothing new, as Mitch Seavey typically has one of his sons take a younger team in the T-200 with the goal of giving the pups race experience without pushing them.
"(Dallas or Danny Seavey) will pack a big bail of straw, camp out and come in behind, but always with a big happy team," he said.
In addition to mushers running puppies, Little said sometimes people with more mature dogs may not be going for a win either. Some musher may opt to use mid-distance races, 200 to 300 miles in length, as preparation for the Iditarod, since the Last Great Race requires mushers to have completed 500 miles of racing in sanctioned "qualifier" events. The T-200 is one of these qualifying races.
"For people trying to qualify, the T-200 is a good, honest test," he said.
Little added that it is a test worth taking too, since Iditarod hopefuls will not only get 200 miles of groomed-in and marked trail, and can have food drops sent to checkpoints rather than carrying supplies the whole way, but they will also lean about themselves and their team while covering what is billed by the race as "the toughest 200 miles in Alaska."
"There is no comparing training experience and race experience. They're totally different environments, and people can see different things in themselves and their dogs in a race. Some dogs can rise to the occasion, and some you thought were the cornerstones of the team may not be what you thought," he said.
At the other end of the spectrum, Little said some professionals mushers may be entered, but not all are aiming to win. Some of these folks have Iditarod or the Yukon Quest to think about, and may use mid-distance races to evaluate which dogs should make the final cut to be on the team in one of these ultra-marathons.
Little said this year, there is one other unique example of mushers coming to compete, but not trying to win the T-200.
"Joe Runyan and Rachael Scdoris are just trying to build a relationship on the trail," he said, referring to the 1989 Iditarod champion, who will be serving as the "visual interpreter" for the legally blind musher from Bend, Ore.
In all, 25 mushers are signed up for the Tustumena 200. For more information on the event, visit the race's Web site at www.tustumena200.com. This year's T-200 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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