While the official start is still two months away, organizers for the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race have been busy planning this year's event, and sign-up officially opens today.
"We're getting ready for another great race," said Todd Stone, president of the T-200 race organization.
While this 200-mile Iditarod qualifier has been a staple of the Kenai Peninsula for the past 23 years, some changes to the rules and course for this year's 24th running of the race may make it seem new for everyone involved.
"The main change is we've eliminated the mandatory layover at Rocky's," Stone said in regard to the four hours of "floating rest" that mushers formerly had to take broken up any way they chose at the checkpoint which is 70 miles into the race outbound and 130 miles inbound for the return.
Instead, under the new rules, there will be only one mandatory rest at the Clam Shell Lodge, 100 miles into the race, and the rest duration at this location which was formerly six hours has been bumped up to eight hours.
Other changes for this year's race include the Four Corners checkpoint (25 and 75 miles into the race) being moved to the Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers gravel pad at the end of Oil Well Road, since the cabin at Four Corners was lost during the 55,000-acre wildland fire that spread through the area this past summer.
"We've also added a dog drop at the Four Corners checkpoint which is now called the Cabin Hoppers Pad for race purposes which we haven't had before," Stone said.
As to the impetus for these rule changes, many came from Paul Gebhardt, the 1996 and 1997 T-200 champion and current race marshal for the event.
"A lot of the rule changes, dog drops and other things, were proposed by me," he said.
Gebhardt explained part of his role as race marshal is to think about the race logistics, and he said the changes will make a smoother race for everyone involved dogs, mushers and race organizers.
"The mandatory rest at Rocky's was a logistical nightmare, so we dropped it and put two extra hours on at the halfway. Logistically it's better for the race and better for the dogs," he said.
However, not everyone agrees. Ken Anderson, from Fairbanks, and last season's T-200 champion, said he is concerned with the new rule to lump all the mandatory rest into one location, since in theory some mushers may now complete the race by making it into two 100-mile pushes.
"It's OK to have a tough race, but two 100-mile runs is a little much. The more options there are to rest, the more it allows you to better respond to your team's needs," he said.
Anderson said he won't be entering this year's race due to a conflicting schedule with another race, but he said if he had been planning on coming down he would be hesitant with the new rules.
"I'd have to really take a hard look at the team. They'd have to be in really, really good shape," he said.
Dean Osmar of Kasilof, who started the T-200 back in 1984 and placed second in last season's race, said he also doesn't like the new rules.
"I'm totally against getting rid of it," he said in regard to the floating four hours of rest.
Having seen the T-200 run for more than 20 years and under a variety of formats, Osmar said not having more than one mandatory rest location in the race is a recipe for ragged dogs.
"I think we need some kind of mandated rest somewhere between the halfway point to benefit them," he said.
Jessica Hendricks of Two Rivers and the 2005 and 2006 T-200 champion, said she also wasn't in favor of the new rules.
"I'd have to say I'm opposed," she said.
Hendricks explained that while in some other races in the state, such as the Knik 200 and the Kuskokwim 300, mushers may make pushes with their dogs that are 100 miles in length or more, those races are relatively flat, unlike the T-200 which is dubbed as "the toughest 200-mile race in the state."
"I've never seen so many hills bundled into one race. You can't push your dogs through two 100-mile runs through that," she said.
However, Gebhardt said he didn't make the changes in the hopes that people would split the race into two runs without rest between them. He said he believes the new format will force mushers to rest their teams as they deem necessary, which may mean resting them beyond what is mandatory.
"You can stop on the way back and still be competitive. I know. I've done it," he said.
Gebhardt explained that when he won in 1996, he pulled over at Lost Creek Lodge and took additional rest beyond the mandatory rest, while others did not and eventually placed behind him.
"I was passed by a lot of other teams while I was there, but I still came back to win," he said.
Gebhardt said the addition of the dog drop at the Cabin Hoppers Pad will also make the race more dog-friendly.
"The dog drop there is more accessible and easier to use for race organizers, and more beneficial to the dogs since dogs with less conditioning, just getting tested out, or that get hurt, can now be dropped rather than having to ride in the sled for miles," he said.
As to other changes in the race, the efforts to fight the Caribou Hills fire in summer, caused some changes to the landscape that will result in a few new reroutes to the race course, according to Stone.
"There will be some changes to the trail obviously. At Caribou Lake a big fire break was plowed in, so that still has to be assessed, but a tentative trail has been identified and we're reviewing issues with permitting now," he said.
For more information on the Tustumena 200 and the new rules for this year's event, visit the race's Web site at www.tustumena200.com.
Joseph Robertia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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