Father, daughter find shared love for racing dogs across frozen snow
March 13, 2017
Oak Creek — A few years ago, Oak Creek musher Tom Thurston was confronted with a tough choice.
For most of his adult life, he had followed the dog sledding lifestyle, chasing race titles around the country, competing in the famed Iditarod four times and winning the Race to the Sky. There was no question he loved the sport, but he also loved his two daughters, 11 and 9 at the time.
"It takes so much time to do racing the way that I like to do it," Thurston said. "It took so much of my time … but I realized that I wasn't willing to miss any more of their lives just for my own selfish pursuit of dog mushing."
So, the top racer decided to take a break for a few years, and instead of following his own dreams, he turned his attention to his children's passions. It meant spending hours in the cold stands at Howelsen Hill Ice Arena, watching his eldest daughter, Greta, play hockey, and attending both girls’ 4-H events.
But, a couple of years ago, when Greta turned 14, Thurston asked her a very serious question.
"I asked her if sled dog racing was something that she wanted to do?," he said. "She said, yeah, sled dog racing was something that she wanted to do, which is what I wanted to hear. But there was no pressure, absolutely no pressure. I would have gone either way based on what she had said — it costs a lot of money, and takes a lot of time to dog race."
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The answer to the question seemed predictable, but Thurston said he needed to know if Greta was serious, and he needed a commitment before he started breeding the dogs that would make up the team.
"I could see the passion was there, so I was willing to provide whatever it was going to take. It also helped that she had been around dog sled racing her whole life," Thurston said.
"He didn't really have to say or do anything to convince me to do this," Greta said. "I've always loved being around the dogs. I love to take them out and stuff. It was always something that we did together, and it was a lot of fun."
Not to mention, Greta likes to take care of the puppies.
"I think that's why we have the friendliest dogs," Greta said. "I would always stick them in a stroller or dress them up in doll clothes. They couldn't help but be social and friendly."
These days, she is in charge of about 12 dogs — a mix of young runners and their moms. She feeds, cares for and trains them when she isn’t working on classes. Thurston said he steps in when life gets too busy for the high school junior, who is home schooled. He also offers advice, when asked, but he has always made it clear that this is Greta's team, and these are her decisions.
"There is a limited opportunity to do this before the children have to go off and become adults," Thurston said. "Maybe she will have a set of dogs someday, who knows? But there is a big gap between junior in college and having to focus on your major courses and getting a job and starting a family or whatever life brings you. So, there is a window here that we have to take advantage of, and I wanted to be able to provide that. "
Thurston also understands this experiment isn't all about his daughter. For him, the process has been a chance to share something with her, and that makes it worthwhile, he said.
"It's been awesome. She has been mushing since she was 3 — some years more, some years less," he said. "It's like the time we spend together is irreplaceable. Most parents don't get to experience that with their children."
He also loves to see the enthusiasm his daughter is showing toward the sport
"If either one of my children are enthusiastic about something, I just get caught up in it myself. I feed off of it,” he said.
Thurston acknowledged that he was excited after Greta and her team won all three races she competed in this year. Greta topped the eight-dog division at the American Dog Derby Dog Sled Race on Feb. 18 in Ashton, Idaho. The ultra competitive race offers several divisions, and Greta won the eight-dog, 45-mile race. However, the race was shortened dramatically after warm temperatures on the second day created a health concern for the dogs racing in the event.
She also won the eight-dog division Colorado Mountain Musher at Snow Mountain Ranch, a two-day, 12-mile race held Feb. 25 and 26 in Granby. She wrapped up the season at the Bachelor Butte Dog Derby March 3 through 5, a seven-dog race covering 30 miles in two days near Bend, Oregon.
Greta acknowledged being a little nervous before leaving the finish line of the Ashton race — the biggest race she has competed in to date. She started training in September, each week bringing a different routine. Once on snow, the idea was to get the dogs in shape and get Greta accustomed to the varying conditions and terrain she would experience while racing. Greta said she was comforted in the training, because her father was nearby on a snowmobile. But she knew that, when the time came to race, she would be on her own.
"There was a lot of build-up time, but I didn't really have an idea what the race was gong to be like,” she said. "There are a lot of things that could go wrong. I run the dogs in every single training run, but my dad was always out there with me … he could watch the dogs, and he was there for damage control in case anything happened. In a race, you can't lose your team or crash or anything like that. Before you head out, that all runs through your head.
Her father, on the other hand, was neither concerned about the races nor surprised by the results Greta turned in.
"I never had eight dog that looked like that, so don't be surprised if you end up doing well," he told Greta at the starting line.
"I knew she was going to do well,” he said/ “We had used five different trails to get her ready, and each one was different. There was one that was flat, one that was extremely steep, one with rolling hills, one that was soft and one at high altitude. We prepare to run on everything. I had taught her how to observe the dogs and how to manage them. I didn't worry about it, because we prepared for everything,
He was also there when she crossed the finish line well ahead of the second-place finisher in all three of her races.
"When she wins, we win," Thurston said. "It's her team, but this is a total team effort, and the greatest thing is that we are a team, and we can share the same love for this sport."
Next year, Thurston said, Greta plans to compete in four or five races, depending on how they fit into her schedule. The biggest one will be the eight-dog, 100-mile Race to the Sky. The two-day event will include 50 miles, followed by a four-hour break, then another 50 miles. Thurston said Greta will race her team, and he plans to run a team of puppies at the event. That way, he can begin preparing more dogs for the future and be at the checkpoint with Greta.
The year after that, Greta will be off to college, but she has plans to compete in at least one more race before turning the team over to her father. She hopes to be in the eight-dog division at the Wyoming Stage Stop race her first year of college. It could be her last chance to share her love for the sport of mushing with her father.