Some might call it the toughest race on earth -- others call it a grueling 1,000-mile race through North America's toughest terrain from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, to Fairbanks.
The Yukon Quest. The name alone brings an aura of awe to mind, and four Kenai Peninsula mushers will take to the trail Sunday to tackle the unpredictable elements and the foreboding terrain of the annual race. Jack Berry of Homer, Tim Osmar of Clam Gulch, Dario Daniels of Homer and Sig Stormo of Soldotna will compete against a field of 32 in the 2001 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.
"The Quest trail is pretty rough terrain with low snow and a lot of jumbled up ice," Osmar said. "It is going to be some tough running, but the dogs will be able to adapt to whatever is thrown our way."
If anyone is capable, it is Osmar. The 33-year-old veteran of 16 trips up the Iditarod Trail is looking to become the fifth musher to compete in both the Quest and the Iditarod in the same year. No stranger to the Quest, Osmar last competed in the race in 1986.
Weather conditions this year left the trail questionable as recently as two weeks ago. But race officials in Whitehorse now say the trail is looking satisfactory.
"It looks fine, there are a few rough sections but nothing unusual," race manager Leo Olesen said. "Everything is looking good, and I don't foresee the trail conditions becoming a problem for the mushers."
Each musher will leave Whitehorse with a different goal in mind. No doubt all of the mushers would like a piece of the $125,000 purse, but some are not there to merely walk away with money in their pockets.
Daniels, who is a rookie in this year's Quest, will be running this year's race to Fairbanks before continuing on to Nome on a quest of his own (See related story, page C-1). Daniels, like other mushers, is racing for money. But unlike some of his mushing counterparts, he is not racing for personal gain.
Daniels will be racing to raise money for his musher friend, Craig Harmon, who was paralyzed in a California car accident last fall.
"The real point about me running is not about me," Daniels said. "I imagine myself sitting in his position and knowing there would be moments of realization that my life has drastically changed. I want him to feel he is not by himself, that he can go on and that it is worth going on."
Another rookie Quest challenger will begin a personal journey when he sets out from Whitehorse on Sunday. Stormo, who was unavailable for comment, will be racing in memory of his daughter, Jessica, who died in a tragic car accident in October 1998 (See related story, page A-1).
Osmar and Berry, on the other hand, will be taking on the terrain and Mother Nature in search of the $30,000 winner's share of the purse.
"My team and I have never been more prepared. Ever," said Berry, a Quest veteran who finished a disappointing fifth last year after leading the race to the halfway point. "Everything has just fallen together perfectly for the entire year, it just seems like everything is going so smooth."
Berry, 45, said he likes his chances of walking away with the victory this year, despite the presence of some high-octane mushers, including Osmar and three former Quest champions.
"This is my year, we're looking forward to winning it," he said. "Last year the only problem was my sled, and we've taken care of that this year. My dogs are all experienced, been through it all more then once. They are all Quest veterans except one."
Osmar, who took third in the Tustumena 200 last week, finished third in the '86 Quest.
"It's been a long time, and I can't seem to remember just how tough the Quest was," Osmar said. "All I can remember is that it was pretty damn tough."
The 10-time top 10 Iditarod finisher said his goal was quite a simple one in concept, just difficult to succeed in reaching.
"My goal is to actually win it, definitely in the top three," Osmar said. "With the overall consensus of this probably being the toughest Quest field ever, I feel I am right up there with the best of them."
Both Berry and Osmar noted that the men to beat were grizzled Quest veterans that know how to handle the trail and the elements. Previous winners Sonny Lindner, John Schandelmeier and Frank Turner, along with David Sawatzky, topped the lists of the mushers Berry and Osmar say will present the most competition through the 1,000-mile race.
While mushers may argue about the comparative difficulty of the Quest and Iditarod, Berry and Osmar, who have seen the front lines of both, say the answer isn't that simple.
"Any thousand-mile race is difficult," Berry said. "I say they are both very difficult. They both have their tough areas. In the long run, you can't compare the two. They are different races. Each brings different circumstances."
And Osmar will experience those circumstances back to back this year.
"I guess I'll know when it is all over," he said. "Both races are a major undertaking. Sometimes you just get the opportunity to run them both and you got to do it."
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