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As the minutes crawled toward start time, the intensity of yelps, whines, and barks increased exponentially. The clamor reached a fever pitch 10 minutes prior to race time while handlers struggled to control spirited sled dogs hammering against their harnesses.
Flimsy orange plastic fencing lined the starting chute of the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race in Kasilof Saturday morning, the only barrier separating eager spectators from even more eager animals. Straining against the weight of the sled, their musher, and the snowmachines gunning it in reverse to keep them from taking off before their turn, the dogs' tongues dangled wildly, their paws scratching frantically at the snow, perplexed by the lack of forward motion.
And finally, in a spectacular release -- like a bullet exiting the barrel of a gun -- they were off, free to do what they do best: run.
The T-200, a 200-mile dog sled race with a purse of $20,000, is the only Iditarod and Yukon Quest qualifying race on the Kenai Peninsula. This year, mushers came from all over Alaska and Canada with hopes of completing the challenge, albeit with varying degrees of success.
"Honestly, I want to win this thing," said Zoya DeNure, a musher who started pursuing the sport in her home state of Wisconsin in 2001. "I have a good dog team. We're really strong."
DeeDee Jonrowe thought similarly of her own 13-dog squad (a maximum of 14 dogs is allowed). Jonrowe, who moved to Alaska in 1971 at the age of 17 and began mushing eight years later, is famous for her small stature and flamboyant pink equipment.
As of press time Saturday night, Jonrowe was leading the race, ahead of Cim Smyth, Mike Santos, Gary Van Loo and Colleen Robertia. Paul Gebhardt led the T-100 into the Caribou Lake checkpoint, and Conway Seavey eeked out a win in the 50-mile Junior T.
"We came in third last year, and we're usually in the top couple," Jonrowe said. "So we're hoping to win."
Optimism and high expectations were rampant among many of the mushers, but longtime New Jersey resident Andy Benkendorf was not necessarily, as they say, in it to win it. A self-sponsored musher who has been running dogs for 14 years, Benkendorf just moved from New Jersey to Kasilof this past year and hopes to make the shift from more sprint-centric racing to long-distance events.
"These are all top mushers in the world," Benkendorf said of the competition, which consisted of 13 other teams. "I'm just a squirrel trying to get a nut, that's all."
The race has four checkpoints -- including the start/finish line in Kasilof -- with the halfway mark at Clam Gulch. Participants running the T-100 will finish at Clam Gulch, and the Junior T mushers (kids ranging from 12 to 17) race to the first checkpoint and back for a total of 50 miles.
Despite differences in age and experience, the first priority for all of the mushers partaking in any of the three races is clear: taking care of their team. Whether it be by massaging their dogs' sore muscles and cold paws or boiling down water and fixing the kibble before their own meal, the mushers know how to treat their dogs right.
"It's really a beautiful mutual relationship," said DeNure. "We rely on them and they rely on us."
"It's for the love of the dogs," Benkendorf agreed. "This is a labor of love. That's why anybody does it, really. You're not doing this to become a millionaire."
The day before the race, mushers brought their dogs to the Soldotna Sports Center, where a mandatory pre-race check-up was performed on each animal to make sure they were healthy enough to attempt the T-200. Some mushers did not have to go through this process, as a vet had already signed off on their dogs' physical condition within the last two weeks.
Head veterinarian Dirsko von Pfeil said he and his team examined the hearts and lungs of the dogs in addition to checking for signs of dehydration or orthopedic injuries like muscle strains.
"Usually at the pre-race check-in they are all pretty healthy," von Pfeil said. "Otherwise the mushers wouldn't bring them here."
If a dog is injured on the trail, they can be put in the sled basket and then taken into the care of the vets at two of the checkpoints -- Clam Gulch and Oil Well. If mushers want a dog they suspect might be injured examined, vets can also perform check-ups at these two stops.
While the mushers clearly love their dogs more than anything, the endearing animals are the main draw for fans and spectators as well.
Amy Gregg of Eagle River, for instance, drove all the way down to Kasilof with her husband to watch Robertia, a Massachusetts native and Kasilof resident who's run the Iditarod, the Yukon Quest, and many mid-distance races.
"I got interested in her after the Iditarod last year and the way that she cares for her animals," said Gregg of Robertia, who gives her dogs homes for life. "Their animals are really part of the family."
First-time T-200 onlooker John Varney brought his three daughters to the race, who love to pet the usually playful pups.
"We like to come see the dogs," he said. "It's pretty exciting when they take off."
Even more exciting than the start, though, will be the T-200's finish on Sunday evening. And despite all the talk of fun and play, it's still impossible to forget the highly competitive nature of the whole affair.
"I think the atmosphere is one of everybody getting together and everybody having a great time and enjoying the day," said Ron Paul of Soldotna.
But the 65-year-old admits there's one main reason he came out Saturday and why he'll be back on Sunday night:
"To see who's going to finish first."
Junior T final results
1. Conway Seavey, 3 hours, 56 minutes; 2. Alea Robinson, 3:56; 3. Micheal "Skeeter" Stitt, 4:16, 4. Ruthan Stitt, 4:16; 5. Palakiiya Rogers, 5:43.
Karen Garcia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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