The trail has been groomed and markers set out; volunteers have been assigned their duties and mushers have begun to arrive -- the 20th running of the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race is ready get under way.
Mushers begin the event by participating in veterinary checks at the Soldotna Sports Center from noon until 5 p.m. today. This ensures all dogs participating in the race are up-to-date on their vaccines and in good health.
From there, the mushers must attend a mandatory meeting at 5:30 p.m. to discuss some final business -- after that, the fun begins.
The prerace banquet, open to the public, kicks off at 6:30 p.m. at the Soldotna Sports Center and will feature an Italian buffet.
"The banquet is where the mushers will meet the kids that will be riding in their sleds," said banquet emcee, race volunteer and board member Evy Gebhardt.
Some of these children are the winners of the T-200 poster contest, while some are special needs children from all over the peninsula.
"The mushers, and the kids they're paired with, will draw the starting positions for the race after the dinner," Gebhardt said.
As exciting as this will be for the kids, Gebhardt advised everyone in the community to take advantage of what the banquet has to offer.
"This year is far and above the most competitive field we've ever had, and people have the opportunity to come out and meet world-class mushers in a relaxed and informal atmosphere," said Gebhardt.
Tickets for the banquet are $16.50 and can be purchased at the door.
At 10 a.m. Saturday the ceremonial start of the race begins at Kenai Chrysler Center in Kenai.
"The mushers will go out of Kenai Chrysler, down Marathon Road to the back of the airfield, then loop back," said Gebhardt.
She advised those interested in seeing the mushers get ready should park in the Home Depot lot and walk down to the intersection in front of Kenai Chrysler.
"The ceremonial start is always fun," Gebhardt said. "We do a live broadcast on 920 KSRM where we tell the history of the musher, where they're from, and who their dogs are."
Those interested in seeing the mushers go by can walk up Marathon Road, which will be closed to all other vehicle traffic.
After the fun and games of the ceremonial start, the mushers pack up their team and head for the official start of the race at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Tustumena Lodge in Kasilof.
"The atmosphere there is completely different," said Gebhardt. "It's high energy and very mechanical because the official time clock is ticking."
The 26 mushers will leave two minutes apart from each other, then the seven Little T mushers will get under way right behind them.
Unlike the ceremonial start, parking is limited at the official start, with mushers and their handlers getting first choice for spots at the lodge.
"We're asking people to car pool if they can. They can drop people off at the lodge, and then park back at Tustumena Elementary. There is also parking at the end of North Cohoe Loop," said Gebhardt.
She had a bit of advice for those attending any of the race functions. "Always ask permission to approach a musher's team. Don't just walk up and pet dogs," she said.
Some mushers are sensitive to who approaches their team, not just for the dogs' safety, but for the person's as well.
Along those same lines Geb-hardt also advised, "Please don't bring pet dogs to any of the race events."
Once the race begins, those interested in keeping up with the latest musher standings can do so online at www.tustumena200.com or call Race Central at 260-5630.
The race is being held in conjunction with the Peninsula Winter Games. The games include a kids' carnival, a frozen salmon toss, snowmachine rides, horse sleigh rides, the championship state dog weight pull and Native Youth Olympics competition. Most of the events are at the Soldotna Sports Center.
For a complete list of activities, see page A-11 of today's Clarion.
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