Jessica Hendicks of Two Rivers crosses the finish line Sunday afternoon to claim victory in the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race, and is greeted by her boyfriend, Tom Lesatz. Hendricks is the first woman to ever win the T-200.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
With so many Iditarod and Yukon Quest champions competing in this year's Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race, it came as a surprise to many both in the race and watching from the sidelines when Jessica Hendricks, a 22-year-old musher from Two Rivers, crossed the finish at 3:28 p.m. Sunday to become the first woman to win the T-200.
This 21st running of the T-200 was filled with surprises that began shortly after the first few mushers left the starting chute Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Tustumena Lodge in Kasilof.
After a roughly 100-yard straightaway, the trail which was incredibly fast for mushers from the hard-packed snow and ice made an almost 90 degree turn left over the Sterling Highway then immediately turned nearly 90 degrees right while simultaneously dipping in elevation.
This feature of the trail combined with dog teams filled with vim and vigor having just started to race served as a hazard that gave mushers a taste of what they were in for over the next two days.
More than a dozen mushers came around the "suicide bend" at such high speeds that they tipped their sleds and hit the ground with rib-cracking force.
After falling, some mushers were dragged for yards as their sleds careened out of control. Others were fortunate in being swung out into the brush along the trail, slowing their teams to an eventual halt.
Judith Currier, a musher from Pleasant Valley, and Kasilof-based Jon Little faced challenges of a different kind, as each had a dog run away.
Currier explained she had a tangle several miles into the race. Her leader and another dog from her team began to quarrel and, as a result, the lead dog backed out of its harness and ran back to the starting line.
Currier untangled her team and turned them around, driving into oncoming dog team traffic in an effort to get the husky back.
"I finally got him. I lost a half hour and I got plenty of head-on passing practice in the process, but I got him back," Currier said.
Jon Little's dog escape happened before he got on the trail. He said an attachment snap broke at the swivel while the dog was excitedly lunging in its harness in anticipation for the run.
"It was freakish. I've only had two snaps do that in all the years I've been doing this," Little said.
What made the situation even more unfortunate was the dog was one of the most nervous in his kennel, so it fearfully evaded those attempting to recapture it, he said.
Little missed his start time while attempting to locate the animal and eventually got on the trail 22 minutes late and a dog short after his wife, Bree Little, assured him he should focus on the race, while she focused on getting the dog back.
The husky was eventually recovered safe and sound. It ran back to Little's kennel, a distance of several miles previously unknown to the animal.
Hendricks also was no stranger to misfortune, although hers came prior to the race. She rolled her dog truck full of dogs in Cantwell just a week before the T-200. She and the dogs were unscathed but she had to borrow a dog truck to make it to the race.
A run of good luck wasn't the reason she claimed victory over the weekend, though. She had a plan born from her years of mushing experience, despite her young age, and stuck to it.
Hendricks began mushing at 9 years old and has participated in numerous sprint races as well as the Junior Iditarod and Junior Yukon Quest. In 2003 she was named the rookie of the year in her first Iditarod.
Most recently, Hendricks won the Solstice 100 in Two Rivers last month and her boyfriend, Tom Lesatz, won the Knik 200 last weekend with Hendricks' dog team.
In the T-200, Hendricks was a rabbit from the very start. She opted to run her team all the way to the halfway point at the Clam Shell Lodge before taking her first substantial break, as opposed to taking a one- to two-hour rest at the Lost Creek Lodge checkpoint.
The halfway point is where mushers take a mandatory six-hour break. They also have a mandatory four-hour break that must be taken at the Lost Creek Lodge checkpoint, but mushers can break it up into any time interval they choose.
"I wanted to see if they could do the whole 100 miles and I thought that it would be more beneficial to give them a four-hour rest on the way back than breaking it up," she said from the halfway point, where she arrived more than an hour ahead of other mushers.
She added that her team had fared well over the distance due to the icy conditions.
"With the trail being so hard and fast, the hills are slick and the sled is sliding right up them," Hendricks said.
The young musher led the entire 100 miles back at a slightly slower return pace, but one that was still enough to blister even her closest competitor, Jeff King, who finished second overall, 31 minutes behind Hendricks.
"I'm first in the men's division, right?" King joked upon crossing the finish line.
"(Hendricks) got this race yesterday. She got the lead and kept it the whole way," he said.
Hendricks said she was happy with her success, especially considering the field of competitors.
"I didn't have any idea how good I was going to do and I didn't think 'Hey, I could win this' until passing Four Corners (the last checkpoint) on the way back," she said.
"I just came wanting to be competitive. I raced the dogs to what they could do and they did good," she added.
Hendricks said the T-200 was a good race put on by good people.
"I'll be back to race it again," she said.
Unlike Hendricks' wide-margined victory in the T-200, the 100-mile Little T race was neck and neck at the finish line, with three teams coming in less than a minute apart.
"I led about 98 miles of it," said Funny River musher Jason Mackey,
He distanced himself from his competitors on the way to Caribou Lake, the Little T halfway point, but was moving slower on the return trip as a result of carrying an injured dog in the basket the last 50 miles of the race.
"Right at the end Jon (Little) came up on me without a headlight on and then, 'blink,' he clicked it on and went right by me," Mackey said.
Little made up his 22-minute start time delay and then some to claim victory in the Little T.
"It wasn't my goal or intention," Little said. "I was just frustrated about what happened at the start and I reacted, I got serious and really got into a groove and it resulted in first place."
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