The start of Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race is just over a month away and organizers say plans are proceeding on schedule.
"The race is right where it should be," said newly elected vice president Bree Little of Kasilof.
Sign-up for the race opened Nov. 14 and in typical form, only a few mushers entered.
"We got a couple the first day, then it died off a bit," Little said.
Some mushers wait to sign up, to gauge their teams in earlier races in the season before committing to the T-200 which has been billed as the toughest 200-mile race in the state.
"I think it's par for course. The deadline is when we really start to see a build-up," Little said, referring to Dec. 31, which is the early deadline that allows mushers to sign-up at a reduced rate. The final deadline for sign-up is Jan. 18.
Despite just a handful of mushers signed up -- eight total in the T-200, plus one so far in the T-100 and two in the Jr. T -- the field is already highly competitive.
"There's a couple of real solid people that could win it," Little said.
In fact, three of the eight mushers are past champions of the race, including Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof -- the '96 and '97 champion; Jeff King of Denali Park, the 2000 and '01 champion; and Lance Mackey of Fairbanks, the defending champion from 2008. Mackey also won both the Iditarod and Yukon Quest in 2008.
"We always have good competition and I think this year again we'll have a good mix of real competitive mushers, a few people just looking to finish, and a few handlers just looking to learn," Little said.
Gebhardt hasn't raced the T-200 since 2005 due to a conflicting schedule with the Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race scheduled the week before. In addition, he served as the T-200's race marshal for the last two years. He said he is looking forward to riding the runners in this season's race.
"I've got it planned as my main mid-distance race of the year, so I'll be racing it to win," he said.
Gebhardt's leader from his last two victories -- Red Dog -- has long since retired, but Gebhardt said he is excited to be testing out some rising stars and other up-and-coming dogs -- such as Lieutenant, Bear, Skunk, Crazy and Thor -- to see who shines.
"I've got new leaders so I'll be taking them to really do something with them," he said.
Kristy Berington, Gebhardt's handler, will also be running a second team for him in the T-200. He said she will also have a strong dog team lead by veteran Houston, but joked he hasn't set too high a goal for her for the race.
"I told her all she has to do is beat me, Jeff and Lance," he said.
As to the highly skilled competition, Gebhardt said he likes running with the best of the best.
"We're all equally competitive and I'll be seeing them again in Iditarod, so I'm looking forward to it," he said.
With no ceremonial start again this season, the official T-200 race start is scheduled for 11 a.m. Jan. 24. Volunteers are being sought to help put on this season's race.
A new Volunteer Registration Form has been linked to the race's Web site at www.tustumena200.com.
Joseph Robertia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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