Mush! Let's go! Hike! All right!
Regardless of the commands they gave to start their teams, the racers competing this past weekend all looked the same as they sped away -- fast!
It was all part of the Peninsula Sled Dog Racing Association's Bradford-Clark Memorial Sprint and Skijor Races held at their trail system adjacent to Soldotna Municipal Airport. Racers could compete in either a five- or eight-dog sprint style sled race over a distance of 8.8 miles, or in a two-dog skijor race over 6.5 miles.
"We have different styles of mushing here on the peninsula," said PSDRA member Rob Sparks. "We've got a lot of distance mushers, but we've got some sprint racers, too."
To outsiders of the sport of dog driving, this may sound like six of one and half a dozen of the other, but there's quite a bit of difference between the two racing styles.
Sprint racing is an all out dash where mushers want their dogs giving their all from start to finish, as opposed to distance racers, who often opt to pace their teams out to conserve speed and strength for the long haul.
Despite the differences between the two, mushers aren't necessarily of one discipline or the other. Some enjoy both racing styles or may occasionally utilize one to cross-train for the other.
Case in point, Iditarod veteran Lance Mackey.
"You've got to keep the dogs guessing," Mackey said.
After recently completing two 300-mile races, he was using the sprint races as a way to shake things up a bit.
"This kind of lets the dogs know that every time we race it won't be a long, drawn-out process. It also works on giving them speed boosts, because the speed is the real difference. The sleds are so much lighter and faster," he said.
Unlike Mackey, Shane Strausbaugh of Sterling was practically born into sprint racing. While watching his father compete in a sprint race back in 1987, Shane's mother went into labor with him.
"I like the speed," said Shane Strausbaugh. "I follow the sprint circuit to Anchorage, Chugiak and Fairbanks."
In addition to being one of the youngest mushers competing this weekend, Straus-baugh also stood out from the other mushers in that he uses a different breed of dog. Instead of the Alaskan husky, he favors the German short-haired pointer.
"They're sleek and fast compared to the bigger dogs often used for sprint mushing," he said.
Not everyone that was out this past weekend was on the back of a sled. Several skijorers also strutted their stuff.
"It's a great physical workout, you're always skate skiing and poling," said Bill Berkhahn.
He should know since he's been skijoring for more than 20 years.
"The companionship of being out with the dogs is really nice, too," he said. "The dogs are noisy when you're hooking them up and at the starting line, but once you get on the trail, it's very quiet and peaceful."
The overall purse for the races was $2,000 and paid out to the daily and the overall winners.
Mitch Michaud, president of the association, said the dog races are part of the Peninsula Winter Games this year, which will work out well.
"I think it was a good idea. Now the games, which are a week long, will start and end with a dog race," he said.
The ending race will be the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race, which takes place this coming weekend in Kasilof.
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