Steamboat Springs For four years, Tom Thurston has had the 2008 Seeley Lake 200 circled. This year, at this 200-mile race, was when Thurston was going to have his adult, 12-dog team primed to compete for a win.
So Thurston wasn't worried when he started the race 23 teams back Saturday morning. Neither were his dogs. They had been preparing to run the hills of this western Montana race since Thurston began hooking them up to his four-wheel ATV for training runs in mid-August.
At 10:16 p.m. Sunday, just more than 30 hours later, Thurston's team crossed the finish line 10 minutes ahead of Rick Larson's second-place team.
Thurston's winning race time was six hours less than the long drive up to Montana, in a blizzard, from his home outside of Oak Creek. But the journey to only his fourth competitive race and first career win was well worth it.
"It's a cool feeling when your competitors say, 'we're proud of you,' because they are professionals," said Thurston, 37, who operates a general contracting business. "They have more wins under their belts than races I've done - we're talking about top-10 (Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race) finishers."
Of those top-10 Iditarod veterans, Jason Barron, who finished third at Seeley Lake, has noticed Thurston's meteoric rise to the elite end of distance racers in the continental U.S.
"Hell, I gave him a hug at the finish line and I don't do that with many guys," said Barron, a 36-year-old Lincoln, Mont., resident, who was busy Wednesday preparing food drops for his upcoming eighth Iditarod.
Barron wasn't alone. The other 27 competing teams also honored Thurston with the race's sportsmanship award.
"Maybe other people play head games, but people ask me what my race plan is and I tell them," Thurston said. "You either did the training or you didn't."
It's that humble and professional approach to the sport that gives Barron reason to believe more wins are in Thurston's future - as well as potential success when Thurston makes the leap from 200- and 350-mile races to entrance in the 2009 Iditarod. Thurston qualified last year for the 1,151-mile Alaskan classic with his eighth-place finish at the Seeley Lake 200.
"I nominated him for the sportsmanship award because a lot of games get played in this sport and people will say things and make excuses," Barron said. "With Tom, what you see is what you get and it's breath of fresh air.
"Without a doubt in the world, he has the right stuff."
Part of that stuff means a willingness to run with the dogs on the uphill sections, where Thurston passed most of his competitors. But Thurston credits the win to consistent training systems with his team and all the details - from the pacing to the feeding to the timing of enforced stops between stages - coming together.
"No mistakes and everything has to flow," Thurston said. "This is the first time I've had confidence in my plan and the plan worked."
He will now give his dogs 10 days off before preparing for a return to racing in early February, with the 350-mile Race to the Sky, where he took third last year on a Montana course near the Seeley Lake site.
Thurston wished to thank the following local businesses that have provided him with varying degrees of sponsorship and support: Rocky Mountain Plumbing and Heating, P.E.B. LLC, Northwestern Supplies, Kitchen Perfection, Steamboat Veterinary Hospital, Grizzle-T Dog & Sled Works as well as few other private donors.