Tom Thurston, right, participates in the ceremonial start down the streets of Anchorage, Alaska, in preparation for the Iditarod, which begins today.

Dagny McKinley/Courtesy

Tom Thurston, right, participates in the ceremonial start down the streets of Anchorage, Alaska, in preparation for the Iditarod, which begins today.

Routt County racers take on Iditarod

Dog sled race in Alaska begins today for Milner, Oak Creek men

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Kris Hoffman and Tom Thurston are scheduled to begin the grueling journey today across 1,049 miles of some of Alaska’s harshest landscapes with some of their closest furry friends. They are competing in the Iditarod, sometimes called “the last great race on Earth.”

Hoffman, of Milner, owns Grizzle-T Dog & Sled Works, and Thurston, of Oak Creek, owns Double T Kennel.

Although the Iditarod begins today, Saturday was the ceremonial start down the streets of Anchorage and the first test for any musher. The excitement of the dogs was palpable as they were harnessed and bootied for a 12-mile run through downtown Anchorage, traveling over bridges, through underpasses, and into the woods to end up at Campbell Airstrip just outside of Anchorage. The ceremonial start is famous for mushers losing their sleds, tipping guests out of their baskets and taking wrong turns.

Late into the night before the ceremonial start, Hoffman and Thurston’s concerns centered on feeding dogs, sorting gear, making last-minute adjustments to fur collars and adding patches to jackets.

Saturday was an early morning, starting at about 4 a.m. for the mushers, and the anticipation of the upcoming race became more tangible. At the mushers’ banquet, Hoffman drew the eighth starting position, and Thurston drew 25th of 63.

As the lines were laid out, the dogs remained relatively calm, though they were clearly ready to run. The truck with dogs peeking out of their traveling boxes drew crowds and photographers while Hoffman and Thurston juggled interviews with sled preparations.

Mushers began heading toward the starting line, traveling down streets packed with snow for the race. As Hoffman was given a five-minute warning, final booties were placed on the dogs, and his wife, Sara, took up her position on a second sled tethered to Hoffman’s to act as a drag, helping increase the braking power as the dogs careen through the streets. Cheers for Colorado went up as Hoffman and Thurston approached the start of the race. Hoffman’s family helped take his team to the starting line, and Thurston’s friends, who have traveled from Oak Creek every year to support him, led his team.

The 12-mile race took about 45 minutes, and mushers received hot dogs and muffins as they toured through Anchorage. At the finish line, it was all business as dogs were checked, fed and loaded into the truck for the drive up to Willow, Alaska, where the official race begins at 2 p.m. today.

Hoffman and Thurston are adopting a newer style of racing developed by Lance Mackey, Iditarod winner for the previous four years, which follows the thought that dogs should run slower in the beginning of a race to maintain strength for the duration instead of racing as fast as possible initially. Thurston ran his first Iditarod in 2009 this way and averaged 9.3 miles per hour at the end of the race — faster than some dogs run starting out. Hoffman, a rookie this year, will switch dogs around to see how they hold up mentally. This is crucial for younger dogs who have not experienced the challenges of a long and harsh race. Hoffman and Thurston’s first priority is the dogs’ well-being and health.

When asked, “Why the Iditarod?” the response tended toward safety, not glory. The Yukon Quest, a 1,000-mile race in Alaska in February, has fewer checkpoints, as much as 200 miles between them, so if something goes wrong, problems could be fatal. This is a race to be undertaken after gaining experience with Alaska’s climate, where temperatures can drop to 60 degrees below zero.

Even with the veterinarians and Iditarod marshals, Thurston said, “Your success or failure comes down to you and you alone. You have to focus on solutions, not problems, or it can become overwhelming. You don’t think about racing 1,000 miles; you think about the next 10 feet.”

On a race as intense as this, the focus has to be on keeping it together, one trail marker at a time.

Sled dogs, or Alaskan Huskies, which is the type of dog Hoffman and Thurston race, metabolize food at such an efficient rate that at the end of a long race, the dogs actually run stronger and faster than at the beginning. This is why Lance Mackey was able to run the Yukon Quest back-to-back with the Iditarod using the same team and win both races. Next year, Thurston and Hoffman plan to run both races.

“The dogs are looking healthy and happy,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman is as confident in his team as Thurston, though challenges can appear any minute. Thurston experienced a blow last year, when he had to scratch because his team came down with a virus that put the dogs at risk.

This year, Thurston and Hoffman teamed up with the financial support of General Physics, a major sponsor for their Iditarod attempt this year and for the next two years. The selection process for the dogs was slightly different than in the past. As Thurston learned through experience, mushers have to set their expectations according to the weakest dog, not the strongest. Hoffman and Thurston will be racing with the majority of their dogs being puppies, about 2 years old. In order to win a race like the Iditarod, teams need to be made up of veterans, which is the goal for two years down the line.

Hoffman and Thurston said they hope to gain experience this year.

“Whatever you do in life, you have to do it to the highest standard you can,” Hoffman said. “The Iditarod is the ultimate test where you get to push yourself to the limit.”

“These dogs fulfill my life,” Thurston said, as he talked about his relationship with the dogs. “You couldn’t pay me $1 million to hike 1,000 miles. It’s my relationship with the dogs that makes me want to be here.”

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