Kasilof musher Josh Hudson carries one of his canine companions to his dog truck after a pre-race veterinary examination at Soldotna Animal Hospital on Monday. Hudson will be a rookie in this year's Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race.
Photo by Mark Quiner
With just hours left until the start of the 21st running of the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race, mushers are busy making final preparations for the big event.
For the seasoned professionals this is nothing new. But what about the rookies?
They don't have past race experience to draw upon. They don't know if their carefully planned race strategy will pay off or backfire into a situation where scratching is the best solution. There's no "Mushing for Dummies" or other hard and fast guidebooks to show novices the ropes of racing.
Once out of the starting chute, rookies like everyone else are responsible not just for themselves, but for their 14 canine companions.
Some rookies will, 200 miles later, cross the finish line, thus earning the title veteran. However, inevitably not all will. Some will succumb to the elements, fatigue, self-doubt or possibly even bad luck.
Knowing this could leave some rookies with prerace jitters, but not Josh Hudson, a 30-year-old T-200 first-timer who maintains a 17-dog kennel in Kasilof.
"I've never raced before, but I'm not stressing. I'm really looking forward to it," he said.
Don't mistake his confidence for cockiness. Hudson's not racing to show off what he knows. Rather, he's racing with the hope of what he may learn.
"This race has the top 20 teams in the state, as well as top teams from Outside the state. I can learn a lot from going with them," Hudson said.
"I just want to watch them to learn how they get their dogs ready, how they and their dogs act when passing teams and how they do things at checkpoints if they're not too far ahead of me," he said.
Unlike some rookies who get into mushing thinking they're going to be the next big name in the sport, Hudson is humble with no false hopes about where he'll end up in the final standings.
"I'll be in the back of the pack and that's fine. I've been out with them enough to know what they can handle, and I'm not going to overexert them or try and burn them out in any way. I'll take it easy and run the way the dogs have been trained," he said.
Hudson has trained a lot this season, much more than years past, which is why he's just now getting around to racing after mushing for four years.
When he's not standing behind a sled, Hudson's a full-time student at Kenai Peninsula College, where he's pursuing a degree in industrial process instrumentation. He also devotes time to his wife and three children.
"I've never had enough time to get in enough training miles and camping experience to race until now," he said.
Hudson has been making regular trips to the Caribou Hills to train on the race trail. He's also been talking with professional mushers in the area to glean information, and he said they've been forthcoming with helpful hints.
"Jon Little gave me some great advice on how to put training miles on the dogs. I've been doing a lot of training with Ed Pearson, too, and he's run it before. Lance Mackey and a few others have also helped me out," he said.
Hudson said he's expecting the hardest challenge he'll face as a rookie will be getting his dogs, which also are rookies, to rest like they're supposed to while at checkpoints.
"They've never been exposed to the race atmosphere with lots of other dog teams around them and people milling about the checkpoints. It will be hard to get them to lay down and sleep," he said.
Hudson also is concerned about the leanness of his dogs going into the race. Despite daily feedings of more than eight cups of kibble and a pound of meat such as salmon and lamb, some of his dogs are burning through 10,000 calories a day and still look thin.
"They have huge muscles and nice silky coats, but a few have such high metabolisms, it's really hard to keep their body fat up," he said.
Other than those few health-related issues, though, Hudson said he's optimistic about competing in the race billed as "the toughest 200-mile race in the state."
"It will be good to be in such a challenging race, but it's also nice to be able to take part in a hometown race," he said.
As to his mushing future after the T-200, Hudson said he isn't entirely sure what trail he might take.
"I've watched the Iditarod year after year and have always thought it would be a blast to do, but that would be way down the road if it ever happened," he said.
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