Don't call him merely a "perennial front-runner" anymore.
Clam Gulch musher Tim Osmar, a 20-year veteran of long-distance dog-mushing, finally claimed a big prize early Friday morning in the predawn chill of Fairbanks, swapping the title of "contender" for "champion," as he crossed the finish line first in the 2001 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.
Osmar won the 1,000-mile race from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, to Fairbanks at 3:48 a.m. Friday after 11 days, 14 hours and 38 minutes on the trail. He told the 100 or so hard-core mushing fans standing on the Chena River at that hour that his performance was something almost unparalleled, even in his extensive career.
"Everything was perfect," Osmar said. "Nothing could go wrong."
Which is, perhaps, as it should be at least once after so many races and so many years on the trail. Just 33 years old, Osmar is a three-time winner of the Junior Iditarod, five-time winner of the Tustumena 200 and nine-time top 10 Iditarod finisher. He also finished third in the Quest the only other time he raced, in 1986.
Still, despite leading this year's race at the halfway point and traveling with the front pack for most of the second half, it was not until the stretch run into Fairbanks, he said, that he finally allowed himself to think about winning.
"Those last 10 miles -- it felt pretty damn good," said Osmar, who pockets the $30,000 winner's check for his efforts. "It'll bring tears to your eyes."
With 15 runs in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the North's other major 1,000-mile race, Osmar said only one other long-distance race came close to going as well as his second stab at the Yukon Quest.
"I've had some good races before, but not in a long time. The '92 Iditarod is the one I compare it to," he said of his third place finish that year.
Osmar said his dogs kept their weight on, stayed healthy and ate well throughout the race. Weather conditions were near ideal and the crossings of Eagle and Rosebud summits on the home stretch to Fairbanks were as close to perfect as it gets.
"All the stars lined up, and that's what it takes to win one of these things," he said.
That, a good race strategy and a team of willing canine-athletes.
"I had patience. You gotta have patience and give your dogs enough rest," he said. "The dogs pulled real hard and ate all their food."
Back on the peninsula, the victory was being savored by friends and family.
"Everything just went his way for once," said Osmar's father, Dean, the 1984 Iditarod champion. "He had some real good dogs when it came to the push."
Climbing 3,650-foot Eagle Summit is where the dogs stood out, Dean said. The climb enabled Osmar finally to put some distance between himself and eventual second- and third-place finishers Andrew Lesh, of Fairbanks, and William Kleedehn, of Carcross, Yukon Territory.
"Going up hill and being able to break trail and still pull away (from the other teams) is a pretty awesome feat for those dogs," he said.
This winter's unseasonably warm temperatures made for a rough trail, with thawing and freezing cycles creating massive chunks of ice on the Yukon River, making travel tough for both mushers and dogs.
"He's pretty beat up," Dean Osmar said. "The ice on the river was brutal and just really hard on mushers and sleds.
"About 300 miles of the river ice were really jumbled up with huge, huge chunks of ice to go over and around hour after hour. It made it really slow. He just had to walk through it."
The temperatures also worked in the mushers' and team's favor.
"The first time (Tim) raced (the Quest), there was a lot of temperatures that were 55 and 60 degrees below zero," Dean said. "This year the temperatures were pretty ideal, probably between 10 below and 15 above. It was ideal for the dogs."
Winning reaches back three generations in the Osmar family, starting with Tim's grandfather Per.
"I just won by accident," Per Osmar said of a small race on the peninsula that won him a trophy. "They just needed another competitor, but I'd never even stood on a sled."
When none of the other mushers made it to the starting line, Per was left with an easy win.
"That must be where the kids get the winning spirit," he said, laughing.
Kasilof musher Paul Gebhardt also said he was excited for Osmar.
"He deserved that. He was due for a victory," Gebhardt said. "He had a really nice team, and he did a good job. I'm definitely happy for him."
Ever the competitor, Osmar had barely stepped off the runners before he started talking about his upcoming bid for Iditarod glory in the race that starts Saturday in Anchorage.
Osmar is one of just five long-distance mushers to attempt both events in a single year. Only three -- Jerry Riley, Sonny Lindner and Charlie Boulding -- completed both races. Coincidentally, as Osmar now has, each has also won one of the two races.
While most acknowledge that the trail and weather conditions are tougher in the Quest, the Iditarod, with its larger purse, generally attracts more high-profile racers. Although Osmar said winning the Quest makes a strong performance in the Iditarod less urgent, he conceded he has considered the possibility of being the first to win both races in the same year.
"Yeah, I'm thinking about it," he said. "I don't feel the normal (pre-Iditarod) pressure at this point. But that might actually help."
In the meantime, Osmar said, he will savor his first big victory and look forward to competing in the Quest again.
"I might not make a habit out of doing both (races in the same year) again. But I sure do see myself doing it again," he said. "It was a lot of fun."
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reporter Amy Miller contributed to this story.
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