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Off to the races: Getting to the start line half the challenge of T-200

Posted: Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sights and Sounds

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Charlie Allison unloads a dog from his truck in subzero temperatures at sunrise Saturday.

No musher wants to go backward.

When the dogs line up in the starting chute, flinging themselves in the air before the musher has pulled the snow hook, it's clear the only place the team will go is straight ahead.

But sometimes that starting gate, where forward is the only option, can be difficult to reach.

On his drive to the Tustumena 200 sled dog race from Colorado, musher Bill Pinkham had to travel backward.

On New Year's Eve, a day equally about reflection and new beginnings, Pinkham had to turn his truck around. He and his handler were in Utah, headed for Alaska and a series of races including the Iditarod, but car trouble sent them in the wrong direction. In order to fix a busted oil ring, Pinkham had to travel out of his way.

The delay would mean 25 hours of non-stop driving to Alberta followed by 33 hours of non-stop driving to Homer, where he was staying.

Fan favorite DeeDee Jonrowe had her own trouble leading up to the T-200. When Jonrowe came to the Soldotna Sports Center for vet checks, one of her young dogs ran away.

"She was kind of scared and she must have slipped her collar and got away," Jonrowe said. "I turned around and couldn't see her. I knew no one would ever be able to track down a dog. They're so fast."

After a few panicked moments and a call to animal control, the dog returned.

"Thank god," Jonrowe said of what went through her head when the dog came running back over the slope.

Lance Mackey, the current Iditarod champion, also faced some uncertainty before the T-200. But it was an exciting kind of uncertainty. Mackey planned to run a dog that he had never run before.

"Newton (Marshall, who is training with Mackey) keeps telling me this dog is doing really well," Mackey said Friday evening. "I've got 25 miles before I can drop him."

Mackey said he will use the T-200 to evaluate this dog and the rest of his team in the hopes of finding more candidates for his Yukon Quest team.

"They better have a good attitude the whole way," Mackey said of what he would be looking for in his dogs. "They have to be focused and adapt to what's in front of them."

Mackey, the 2008 T-200 champion, said he was not worried about trying to win the 2010 race.

"It's 200 more miles of solid training in the hills with a good trail," Mackey said. The trail was said to be especially well delineated, containing about 3,200 markers. "I'm not looking for miracles, just a good, smooth run."

Many mushers share Mackey's attitude regarding the T-200.

"The purpose is to figure out who the lead dog is," said Sheep Mountain's Zack Steer. "I really want to see who can perform, particularly at the end. My dogs get bored training on the same trails. This gets the dogs excited to run."

Jonrowe said she would be seeking an even pace.

"It's important for them to have a good, comfortable race. It's a chance to finish the race happy," she said Friday. "It builds their confidence, and it builds my confidence in them."

The weather was bright and cold for Saturday's start, nearly ideal for a weekend of dog racing but not necessarily ideal for evaluating dog teams.

"You sort of want crappy weather. We all do well when the conditions are really good," Steer said. "Likewise, I'd rather be worrying about sunburn than frostbite."

But the nice weather provided the large crowd good conditions for watching the start of the race. It allowed everyone to clearly observe the mushers' disparate styles.

While some mushers stand on their sled as the handlers situate the dogs, last year's champion Cim Smyth has a unique approach.

He walked to the head of his team, and raised his hand with a maestro's touch to silence his team all at once.

Pinkham, who arrived safely if not frantically, from Colorado, carried a frenzied style into his start. He scampered around his team, untangling any tug lines that had been twisted, and then hopped onto his sled.

A fraction of a second later, Pinkham and his team sped off down the trail.

Current race news

As of 8 p.m. Saturday, the leaders in the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race were just reaching the Clam Shell Lodge in Clam Gulch, the race's halfway point where teams are required to take an eight-hour rest.

Jeff King of Denali Park was the first in to the Clam Shell, followed two minutes later by Cim Smyth of Big Lake.

In the T-100, the lead teams were on their mandatory four-hour layover at Caribou Lake before their race back to the finish. Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof was the first into the Caribou Lake checkpoint, followed closely by Colleen Robertia of Kasilof and Daryl Gruet of Kasilof.

Rebekah Ruzicka of Anchor Point drove her team to a win in the 50-mile Junior T, followed by Guillermo Anton of Chugiak, Nathanieal Stitt and Michael Stitt, both of Willow, Alea Robinson of Eagle River and Palakiiya Rogers of Kasilof.

For race updates, visit the Tustumena 200 Web site at www.tustumena200.com.

Andrew Waite can be reached at andrew.waite@peninsulaclarion.com.



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