Patrick Mackey of Kasilof packs his sled in preparation for the Junior Iditarod which starts in Willow on Saturday. Mackey is one of three local mushers signed up for this year's race.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
While the big dogs are in the final days of preparing for the Iditarod next weekend, several young pups are set to start on the junior version of the race this weekend.
This year 26 young mushers, ages 14 to 17, are signed up for the Junior Iditarod, including three from the Kenai Peninsula Rebekah Ruzicka of Anchor Point, Daniel Osmar of Ninilchik and Patrick Mackey of Kasilof.
These youngsters will race their 10-dog teams roughly 150 miles on an out-and-back course. Starting from Willow, they mush to the halfway point at the Yentna Station Roadhouse, where they will take their mandatory 10-hour layover before leaving in the morning to return to the finish.
“I’ve done a few smaller races, but nothing this long. This will be my first big race, but I think I’m pretty ready for it,” said 14-year-old Ruzicka.
Ruzicka has been running dogs for six years. She will be a rookie in this year’s race, but said her brother, Mark, has twice competed in the race and has been helping her plan for it.
“It’s a real family affair. My brother has been giving me tips and advice on my checkpoint routine. My parents are also very supportive,” she said.
Ruzicka said their kennel is a small operation and she’ll be taking almost every dog the family owns.
“We were training eleven, but one developed foot problems,” she said.
Ruzicka said the 10 dogs she is taking are ready to go, though.
“I’ve been training since August. I mostly use the trail system out of my house, but I occasionally train on the T-200 trail too,” she said.
Despite this being her biggest race to date, Ruzicka said she wasn’t nervous about competing in the event.
“I’m pretty excited really. I think it’ll be fun to be with the dogs, seeing different trails,” she said.
Daniel Osmar, 14, also is a rookie in this year’s race, but comes from a long line of famous mushers. He is the son of Tim Osmar a three-time Junior Iditarod champion, and the brother of Nicole Osmar the 2004 Junior Iditarod champion. He also is the grandson of Dean Osmar, the 1984 Iditarod champion. He said he is not lacking in dog driving experience.
“I’m getting pretty good at it now,” he said.
Osmar, who began running dogs at 4 years old, said he was happy he was finally old enough to continue the family tradition of competing in the Junior Iditarod.
“It’s cool it’s my turn. Since I first started running dogs, I’ve always wanted to do this race,” he said.
Osmar admitted that he was a little nervous about this race, but said since he has trained hard for it all fall and winter, he’s as prepared as he can be.
“I’ve been running the dogs every other day since August, mostly running with my dad, and he’s been giving me a lot of pointers,” he said.
From their home in the Caribou Hills, the two Osmars train through the high country on the same trails Tim uses to train for the Iditarod.
The younger Osmar also competed in the inaugural Junior T, which ran simultaneously with the Tustumena 200, and he said it was an invaluable experience.
“The Junior T went pretty good. I think it was good training for the Junior Iditarod,” he said.
As to where he wanted to finish in the final standings, Osmar said, “I’m just hoping to finish this year, and then compete over the next few years.”
Like Osmar, Patrick Mackey,15, also is a third-generation musher.
He is the son of 2004 Iditarod veteran Jason Mackey and the nephew of Rick Mackey the ’83 Iditarod champion and Lance Mackey ’05, ’06 and ’07 Yukon Quest champion. Patrick also is the grandson of Dick Mackey, who won the 1978 Iditarod by one second.
Last year, Patrick started the Junior Iditarod but he was forced to scratch after some of his dogs sustained injuries in a quarrel amongst themselves.
“I don’t want any dog fights this year,” he said.
Like many in the big race, Mackey said sometimes you can learn as much from failure as you can from success, and he intends to apply everything he learned from the ’06 race.
“I learned a lot last year. I wasn’t as organized as I am now. This year I know more about what I should be doing on the trail and in the checkpoints. I’m more experienced and so are the dogs,” he said.
The youngster said he gleaned this knowledge from regularly running dogs with his dad.
“I’ve been training with him all year,” he said.
Like Osmar, Mackey also competed in the Junior T, and said the experience will be an asset.
“The Junior T is a lot hillier the the Junior Iditarod, but it was good training,” he said.
Mackey said he is hoping all the long hours standing on the runners after school and on weekends pays off in this year’s race.
“I’ve got a fast team and I feel prepared, so I’m hoping for a top-five finish,” he said.
This year’s Junior Iditarod begins Saturday at 10 a.m. at Knik Lake, about 13 miles out Knik Goose Bay Road in Wasilla.
Scholarships will be awarded to the top five finishers as well as to the winners of the sportsmanship and humanitarian awards.
The first-place finisher will take part in the Iditarod’s ceremonial start by going out of Anchorage in front of the mushers, and will go to Nome to be introduced at the Iditarod Awards Banquet on March 18.
For more information or to follow the race, visit the Junior Iditarod Web site at www. jriditarod.com.
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