Feeling the thrill of victory: Nothing like kicking to the finish behind a great dog team

Voices Of The Clarion

Posted: Sunday, March 16, 2008

While Lance Mackey and Jeff King dueled it out in the final days of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race last week, another exciting yet under-reported sled dog saga was unfolding just north of Fairbanks at the same time.

The race was the Two Rivers 200 "Chatanika Challenge," which is a 200-mile event that serves as an official qualifier for the Iditarod and the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. The racers were Colleen Robertia of Kasilof currently the Kenai Peninsula's only female distance racing musher and Mike Mayer, a talented dog driver from Fairbanks.

The race course is, as the name implies, very challenging. It features several steep ascents and descents over mountains, including Iowa Dome, which stands 2,252 feet high. This is not much higher than some of the peaks in the Caribou Hills, but the difference is instead of descending down a 20-foot-wide groomed trail as in the hills, the drop down Iowa Dome is narrow and winding with trees on both sides. There's no room for error when shooting this snow flume behind 12 high-powered huskies.

Once out of the mountains, most of them anyway, the race course meets up with the Yukon Quest trail and moves across the frozen Chena River and a few small creeks, where overflow is common. This year was no exception as waist-deep overflow was more than a few mushers could handle. Once cold and wet, they scratched with their teams.

While the temperatures were cool at night, this year's race also saw the mercury soar to the high 40s during the day, which is much warmer weather than sled dogs typically run in, even when fall training in August.

Despite these numerous challenges, Colleen and her team came prepared. They had successfully completed the Copper Basin 300 and Tustumena 200 this season alone, and the team was fresh off a first-place finish in the local Peninsula Sled Dog Racing Association's 10-dog classic sprint race.

Unfortunately, during the random drawing for starting position Colleen drew 19th dead last. This position can be difficult because it mean lots of passing to pull ahead, risking tangling with other teams. In addition to eating up time, this can also be dangerous since dog teams may get scrappy with each other when in tight situations, such as a trails no wider than a dog sled, as it was for much of the course.

Going out last also means rougher trail, since each musher that stomps their break on a steep descent drags snow away, leaving less for the team behind them. Holes in the ice get larger with each passing team, leaving large pockets of overflow for back-of-the-packers.

Colleen knew all of this, but didn't let it sway her from keeping a positive mental attitude. She went into the race hoping that last at the start would mean first at the finish, and when she left the starting chute the hunt began.

By the first road crossing 44 miles into the race, Colleen had already picked off all but two teams, and was only 40 minutes behind the race leader, a title Mike Mayer claimed early on. The first leg of the race was 100 miles though, and over the next 60 miles Colleen reeled in another team and had closed the gap between her and Mike to 30 minutes.

However, after their starting time differentials were calibrated at the halfway point, Colleen learned she was in the lead by six minutes.

This race requires mushers to take 10 hours of rest during the course of the event, but where and how they choose to take the rest is up to them. Colleen opted to take six hours and then push on to the next checkpoint 50 miles away. Mike left after six hours, too.

Over this leg of the course, the two switched places for the lead several times and when they arrived at the next checkpoint, Mike was 20 seconds ahead of her. They both rested their final four hours and then took off for the finish line, boosting their momentum by continuously kicking behind the sled and utilizing a ski pole when the trail was too soft to step off the runners. They knew whoever was going to win this race was going to have to work hard for it.

At the finish line a crowd was waiting, since unlike most distance races where one person decisively pulls ahead at some point, no one could say for certain who was going to be first this day.

Finally, the sound of a spectator yelling "dog team!" rang out, and all eyes squinted down the trail to see who it would be, but before anyone could focus on who the first musher was, another person yelled, "There's another team!"

Colleen and Mike were running side-by-side and every dog in both of their 70-foot-long ganglines was loping as hard and fast as it could. The mushers were working equally hard, each calling up their teams at the top of their lungs and running and kicking behind the sled like maniacs. In the final few hundred yards, Colleen's team managed to pull slightly ahead and she crossed the finish line in first place, just 15 seconds ahead of Mike.

For her victory, Colleen received a trophy and almost twice as much as anyone in Iditarod that finished from 31st through last place. But beyond the monetary prizes, Colleen received the satisfaction of knowing that while it would be great to race from Anchorage to Nome one day, it is better to wait until she can actually "race" the Last Great Race, rather than just running it for belt buckle.

In the mean time, she'll continue to run less prestigious races and gain experience, have fun, feel the excitement, and attempt to collect the winnings while doing so.

Clarion reporter, and Colleen's husband and handler, Joseph Robertia can be reached at joseph.robertia@peninsulaclarion.com.

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