By Joseph Robertia
As the 28th running of the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race prepares to get under way this weekend, it is shaping up to be a race of champions, with five past T200 champs signed up to run. But with the race taking an entirely new trail this year, not even past winners have an experience advantage.
“I think we’re on track for a great race,” said Tami Murray, T200 executive director.
Signed up so far are numerous past victors of the T200, including the defending champion Dee Dee Jonrowe, of Willow, 2005 and 2006 champion Jessica Hendricks, of Two Rivers, 2000, 2001 and 2010 champion Jeff King, of Denali Park, 2004 and 2009 winner Cim Smyth, of Big Lake, and hometown favorite Paul Gebhardt, of Kasilof, who won in 1996 and 1997.
“I’m really happy with the field so far,” Murray said “It’s a really strong field with so many having already won it, but there’s some other really talented mushers signed up, too.”
In addition to all the past T200 champions, there are also several winners of other mid-distance races around the state, including Colleen Robertia, of Kasilof, the 2010 winner of the Gin Gin 200, Dan Kaduce, of Chatanika, who won the Solstice 100 near Fairbanks earlier this season, and Jodi Bailey, of Chatanika, who won the Gin Gin 200 in 2007 and 2008.
“It’s a race we have not done, but have always heard good things about, so we wanted to come down and check it out,” Bailey said.
Living north of Fairbanks, Bailey has been training in temperatures that hovered at minus 40 for months, so she said she is looking forward to the milder weather of the Kenai Peninsula.
“We made the decision to go down long before the cold snap in the Interior, so weather was not really a factor then. Now, it is appealing to be running somewhere that should be a little warmer than our current temps,” Bailey said.
The T200 has the moniker of being “the toughest 200 miles in the state.” Bailey said her team is no stranger to hills but, that being said, she plans on using the T200 as training for a bigger race in March.
“I think hills are fun, we train in them. You leave our yard and climb for five miles, and then go from there. We also train in the White Mountains north of Fairbanks so we do hilly every day. But I think, like a lot of teams this time of year, our kids are sick of running around home. So I hope new trails will get them excited, and it is always fun to race. The dogs pick up on the excitement,” she said.
“My goals are always the same, to run the team in front of me to the best of my ability. But in this case I will also have a team of dogs that are in consideration for my Iditarod team. So I will be taking a good look at them to see which ones are really enjoying themselves out there, eating good, ready to get up and run after every rest,” Bailey added.
As of deadline Monday, there were 20 mushers signed up for this year’s T200, including peninsula locals Aaron Kerschner, Anna Berington, Jane Faulkner, Bill Pinkham, Bill Piccolo and Bruce Linton.
However, the field may shrink by two as a pair of mushers coming up from Colorado literally ran into some trouble en route.
“Lachlan and Linda Clarke hit a moose in their dog truck while making the drive up. They’re fine and so are all the dogs, but they’re not sure if they’ll be able to get here in time for the race now,” Murray said.
Mushers who do make the start will be facing new country during this year’s event. For the first time in more than a decade the race course will travel to Homer and back, much as it did in the inaugural T200 back in 1984.
From the start line at Mile 122 of the Sterling Highway in Kasilof, the trail will travel into the Caribou Hills and then head south to McNeil Canyon Elementary School in Homer 50 miles into the race. There mushers are required to take two hours of rest on the way to the halfway point, and two hours rest on the return.
“We put the layovers back into the race to break up the 100-mile runs, which came at the request of several mushers, so we’re very interested to see how it works out,” Murray said. “At McNeil, the Snomads snowmachine club of Homer, along with mushers from that area, will be manning the checkpoint. The mushers will be able to get inside and get warm, there will be water and straw available for their dogs, and there is plenty of parking for handlers and fans.”
Following the first two-hour break, the trail continues back into the Caribou Hills to the halfway point at Freddie’s Roadhouse off of Oilwell Road, where mushers are required to take six hours of rest. That checkpoint takes the place of the now-closed Clam Shell Lodge.
“The Clam Gulch checkpoint elimination was tough,” Murray said. “With the passing of Guy Baker, the owner of the Clam Shell Lodge, we lost our housing for the mushers. Although this is a minor problem compared to what the community lost, it was a concern for us.
“In addition, we added 50-plus miles to the trail when we added Homer, so we needed to pull in a few miles,” Murray said. “With the housing issues there wasn’t a question on what had to be done. Tim Moerlein was more than willing to let us use his storage facility again (where dog teams parked across from the Clam Shell) and hope that offer is extended in the future. Fred Pollard (owner of Freddie’s) didn’t hesitate when we needed a new checkpoint. Freddie’s Roadhouse is an amazing place and should prove to be an excellent checkpoint.”
Freddie’s was a checkpoint for the race several years ago when the lodge was under different ownership. The new owners and staff said they are excited to be a part of the race again.
“We’re looking forward to having the mushers come through,” said Tony Calabrese, caretaker of the roadhouse. “We’ll have chili on for the mushers, and we’re a full-service restaurant and bar, so they can order burgers or chicken strips too if they want. We’ll also do breakfast in the morning.”
Calabrese said the lodge will be a good stopping point for humans and dogs.
“There’s plenty of room for parking teams here, and we’ll have hot water for mushers to fill buckets for feeding their dogs. We’ll have a big bonfire going for people to warm up and we’ll clear some space in the lodge for mushers to come rest, but we also have cabins still available for rent. For race spectators we’ll have a computer hooked up to the big-screen TV so everyone can keep up with the stats,” Calabrese said.
Since the hills are at a relatively high elevation compared to lower-lying Soldotna, and heat rises, Calabrese said the temperatures in the hills have been mild compared to town.
“Even when it was minus 20 in town, we didn’t see anything like that up here,” he said. “It’s been holding at about 8 to 9 degrees at night and getting up to 12 to 14 during the day.”
Race fans will be able to follow the race like never before this year. For the first time in the T200 mushers will be carrying SPOT trackers, which will allow for position updates throughout the event.
The SPOTs also come with a 911 feature, so in addition to making the race easier to follow, it will make it safer for mushers, Murray said.
The race festivities kick off Friday with veterinary checks at the Aspen Hotel in Soldotna from noon to 5 p.m., followed Saturday with the start of the Jr. T at 9 a.m. and the T200 start at 11 a.m. For more information on this year’s event, visit the race’s website at http://www.tustumena200.com or the organization’s page on Facebook.