Steamboat Springs When asked to look into the future of his sled dog racing, Oak Creek-based musher Tom Thurston used to plead uncertainty.
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is expensive, he’d explain, and it’s demanding not just on the pocketbook, but on his time in the winter and summer as he trains for the classic Alaskan race.
Now he has a different tone.
Thurston said General Physics Corp., one of his largest sponsors for his first two runs in the massive event, has stepped up to help support his future in the sport. He’s worked out a three-year deal with the company that will allow him to not just race the next three Iditarods, but to do it in a way that could make his team one of the most competitive on the trail in 2013.
“It’s huge,” Thurston said about the new commitment. “None of us have the money we had a couple of years ago, right? But General Physics said they’d pay for the majority of everything. I know what I’m in for now.”
Thurston has had two drastically different trips to the Alaskan ice, and he said the most recent run helped him realize what a bear the course truly is.
In his first running in 2009, he took it easy on his dogs, all rookies in the race. At that point, he was hoping to build a team capable of competing in 2011, and he appeared to be on the right track as he finished the race. He was 44th, finishing the 1,100-mile course in 14 days, 3 hours, 36 minutes and 22 seconds.
Last winter, however, things went poorly. Thurston said his team of 16 dogs contracted a bug and stopped eating. He had dropped six of the dogs at checkpoints along the way, but facing a 150-mile leg and minus-48-degree temperatures, he knew he wouldn’t finish the race for a second consecutive year.
“I went into the race with an incredible dog team, but I knew I wasn’t going to have the money to come back, so I decided I had to go for it,” Thurston said. “They all had the training miles and the attitude, but they weren’t trail-hardened.
“It’s not just the dogs, either. I need more hard Alaskan race miles myself. It’s just different up there.”
Thurston said he hopes a new approach will address all of that.
When he goes back to race this winter, he won’t be alone. Kris Hoffman, of Grizzle-T Dog and Sledworks, will drive a second team, thanks in large part to General Physics paying for the first team. Thurston said both will be filled with young dogs and both will try to take it slow, breaking the teams in to the harsh race environment.
A year later, they’ll do it again, mixing in as many Alaska races and as much extreme cold-weather training as possible.
Finally, in 2013, Thurston said, he hopes to have a team of athletes fit not just to finish the daunting race, but to compete in it.
“Looking back, I’d say I did really well in 2009,” he said. “I didn’t realize how well until I went back up there and got slapped. Running a competitive race is so different than taking a puppy team (like in 2009). It’s different for the dogs and the musher.
“I know I have the athletes. Now I just have to figure out the race and how to run it by going up and doing it again and again and again.”