By Joseph Robertia
If Big Lake musher Cim Smyth was an animal, he would undeniably be cheetah, as Jeff King found out the hard way after leading more than half the 2012 Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race only to be brought down like an antelope just miles from the finish line.
“I had an eight-minute lead over him leaving Homer and I thought it might not be enough,” King said at the finish line Sunday, crossing it seven minutes later than first-place finisher Smyth. “Both Smyths are known to be hard finishers. (Cim’s brother, Ramey, won the T200 in 1998, 1999 and 2002.) They’re remarkable.”
Smyth — Cim, that is — is no stranger to being in the T200 winner’s circle, having won the race twice before this year, in 2004 and 2009. Smyth also is no stranger to coming on strong at the end of a race, as he is a four-time recipient of the Iditarod’s award for having the fastest time from Safety to Nome.
At the halfway point, at Freddie’s Roadhouse off of Oilwell Road in Ninilchik, Smyth’s team appeared tireless. At his front end was Alpha, a 70-pound and muscle-rippled male that looked more like a horse that Trojans could be hiding in, rather than a typical lead dog. This 3-year-old dog seemed unfazed by the 100-mile hill run it had done to get there, and attempted to wrestle and play with other dogs in the team during the mandatory six-hour rest.
However, on the run to the next checkpoint the dog must have taken a bad step because he was favoring a front foot in Homer.
“He’s a solid dog, but his wrist was sore,” Smyth said.
Smyth dropped the dog for its own safety, much to the dismay of the still-energetic Alpha, who continued to bark and try to pull away from handlers when Smyth left the checkpoint with the rest of the team.
In addition to being down one of his best dogs, Smyth was dealing with several females in heat, which further handicapped his performance. Females in heat will continue to run and pull in the team positions, but often become too distracted by hormones to be able to handle the demanding task of leading.
Adding to the situation, male lead dogs also won’t run at the front end because the smell of the females is too enticing for
them. They continually stop and attempt to double back to where the in-heat females are in the team, often creating tangles in the process.
“I was really struggling with leaders,” Smyth said. “I had eight females in heat and six of them were lead dogs, and the two who weren’t in heat, only one was fast enough to be able to be at the front and beat Jeff King, but she had never run in single lead.”
Single lead is something even experienced lead dogs may or may not do, and is a daunting task for young, still-learning leaders like Smyth’s dog Jane. A little on the small side compared to most of his other canine companions, this rust-colored 4-year-old female may not have looked like much to the average race spectator, but her powerful performance in the last leg of the race clearly showed that amazing things sometimes come in small packages.
“She really shined,” Smyth said.
Jane was willing to fill the role of lead dog, but with the forward momentum Smyth still had to contend with beating King — a four-time Iditarod champion and three-time T200 champion who holds the moniker of “most winningest musher” in the sport today.
As King pulled through the Oilwell Road checkpoint, 25 miles from the finish and the last place to drop a dog in the race, he cut loose three uninjured dogs just to try to move quicker in an attempt to stay in front of Smyth.
“I’m very proud of these dogs and I think they’re a bunch probably better suited to the Iditarod trail than this groomed trail. It was really fast and I didn’t think the whole bunch could handle the speed I knew we were going to be moving at, so I thought I could go faster with nine,” King said.
In the end it wasn’t enough to fend off Smyth, who passed King, led for a few miles, and then got passed back by an unyielding King.
“I thought he knew I had the power and would lay off, but he didn’t, so after he passed me I really got with it,” Smyth said.
Having trained his dogs to switch from trotting fast to full-out loping at a whistle, Smyth attempted to call his dogs up, but he had yet another problem, this one not related to his dogs.
Smyth is usually a clean-shaven musher, but this year showed up with a big, black, bushy beard on his face. He said he grew it not by choice, but from having a lack of time to keep up with shaving due to all the long training runs he was putting in during the weeks leading up to the T200.
As he attempted to whistle up the team, he discovered a thick shell of ice had built up on the whiskers around his mouth from the exhaling he was doing while running up hills, and this ice prevented him from being able to pucker his lips for a whistle.
“I got scared and started trying to bite and chew the ice off as fast as I could,” he said.
Luck must have been on his side because within a few chomps, Smyth was able to get enough of a whistle sound out to shift the team into high gear. He passed King again and then held the lead all the way to the finish line, where he crossed at 3:56 p.m. Sunday with his 11-dog team
still loping at no less than 20 miles per hour. Seven minutes later King arrived in second place.
Smyth said it felt great to achieve another T200 victory, and that beating King added to the sweetness of his success. Not because King had finished first and Smyth second the last time they raced the T200 together in 2010, however. Rather, Smyth said it was because, while many mushers will bring an “A” team but then attempt to poker others into thinking they aren’t there to win, King doesn’t play that game.
“He’s a great guy to race against because if Jeff is there, you know he’s there to win. He’s not going to make it easy for you. So if you beat him, you worked for it, and that feels good. Those are the best types of wins, the ones you work hardest for,” he said.
Rounding out the race finishers Sunday were Dan Kaduce in third at 5:15 p.m., Colleen Robertia in fourth at 7 p.m., Paul Gebhardt in fifth at 7:45 p.m., Didier Moggia in sixth at 8 p.m., Jodi Bailey in seventh at 8:38 p.m. and Anna Berington in eighth at 9:57 p.m.
The next day Jane Adkins came in ninth at 2:23 a.m., followed by Sarah Stokey in 10th at 2:59 a.m. and Bill Piccola in 11th at 7:41 a.m. Scratches for the race included Rebekah Ruzicka, William Pinkham, Bruce Linton, Dee Dee Jonrowe and Aaron Kerschner.