T-200 leaves mushers feeling good about their options

Voices of the Clarion

Posted: Sunday, February 04, 2007

So many questions

With my wife, Colleen’s, 10th-place finish in her first Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race last weekend, we’ve both received a multitude of questions this past week relating not just to the T-200, but running sled dogs in general.

A few of these were the same questions asked by many different people, so I thought I might use my column this week to answer them.

“Are you happy with how she did?” is the first question, and to this we both say, “Absolutely!”

Colleen has competed in quite a few 100- to 150-mile races, but this was her longest race to date. So, it felt good to finish close to her competitors who have run the Iditarod and Yukon Quest multiple times.

Also, to even finish in the top 10 in a race as tough as the T-200 is a real honor, but the fact that this was her first one compounded Colleen’s sense of accomplishment.

By far, though, the biggest reason we are happy with how the race turned out was because some of the dogs we were running had come from the Kenai Animal Shelter and the Nikiski Extended-Life Animal Sanctuary.

We were in love with dogs long before we fell in love with mushing, so when we became involved in the sport we knew being compassionate was far more important to us than being competitive.

Despite training all season and starting the race with 1,800 miles behind them, we didn’t know how far these pound pups would make it in a race situation, and we were only prepared to let them run as long as they were having fun.

They ended up going strong for 130 miles, and the only reason they were dropped then was to ensure their experience ended positively. It was the last opportunity to drop dogs for 70 miles, and Colleen thought one or both could fatigue in that last push to the finish. It was a conservative decision, but we both think a good one.

“So, are you running it next year,” is question two. To this my wife would like me to say, “Yes,” but the answer is probably “no.”

Since we have different days off from our full time jobs, we both train the dogs to maximize the number of days a week they run. However, my wife is the one with the competitive spirit.

She played college basketball and thrives on the excitement of having skill and talent and putting them up against others that are equal to or better than her. Colleen also learned how to mush firsthand, from an Iditarod champion and a professional, while I, an apprentice of an apprentice, learned from her.

I enjoy running the dogs, but as opposed to being a part of it all as in a race, I enjoy running them for the experience of getting away from it all. This isn’t to say that I will never race. I’ve raced in the past and may do so again, particularly if it benefited Colleen’s performance, such as if I ran a puppy team in the same race she took our racing dogs.

However, if and when I do, will be when I’m good and ready, which brings to me to the third, and by far, most frequently asked question, which is “When are one of you going to run the Iditarod?”

I understand why many people ask this question. Everyone, even those who don’t have close ties to mushing, know what the Iditarod is. As such, it is an honest way to express interest in a sport you may know little about.

To this question, though, we can only answer “maybe.”

The Iditarod is an ultra-marathon and an apex race in the sport of mushing. To desire to one day compete in a race of this caliber is perfectly acceptable, but to rush to the starting line seems — in both our opinions — foolish, as well as dangerous to human and dogs.

For us, it is analogous to thinking that just because you got a learner’s permit to drive, you’re ready to compete in NASCAR’s Daytona 500.

That’s not to say that every year we don’t see people attempt the race who have no business being alone in the Alaska wilderness in winter, much less being responsible for 16 other living creatures. And, like a broken clock is right twice a day, some of these folks always seem to fumble their way to the finish.

For us, though, to attempt the race before we are ready is taking away from all the experienced people who have, for years, put in their time and trained hard to be there.

Many of these people who rush to run the Iditarod are not excited about the experience of spending 10 days to two weeks traveling across Alaska on the back of a dog sled. I’ve even heard people complain about the very idea of it.

Instead, these people are excited about telling people they did it, but what they don’t understand is that, over time, the more people like them that make it, the less it will mean. What is there to brag about if everyone can, or is, doing it?

When — and if — Colleen or I decide to run Iditarod, it will be because we know whatever the race can throw at us, we can get ourselves, and the dogs, through it safely while still having fun. For now, though, we are still learning with each run we take the dogs on, so, no matter if its five, 10, 15 years or more, we’ll enjoy the trail, whether it takes us to Nome or not.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Clarion.

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