Sled race comes in Park City
Glen Heinrich-Wallace RECORD INTERN Beginning at 9:30 a.m. Saturday morning, Saint Mary’s Catholic Church on S.R. 224 had a different kind of visitor than it is accustomed to: dogs. Over the course of an hour, 20 custom-made trailers that ranged in appearance from horse trailers to animal control trucks rolled into the parking lot. The drivers and passengers would crawl out into the chill morning air and prepare a range of wires and hooks around the vehicles before systematically opening the small doors of their trailer and helping their dogs down to earth. The International Pedigree Stage Stop Sled Dog Race (IPSSSDR) had arrived in Park City. The name comes from the unusual format in which teams will race for part of the day and then drive to the next site, instead of plowing through a course in one go. This year the race started in Jackson, Wyo., and ran through Kemmerer, Evanston, Mtn. View/Lyman, Alpine, Pinedale, and Lander before arriving in Park City. The teams, mushers included, had to spend one night outside during the event. The dogs used in the race are Alaskan huskies. They are smaller and sleeker than their Siberian cousins, averaging about 45 pounds and four feet from head to tail. The dogs are a cross between regular huskies and European hounds that have been bred for resistance to the cold, speed, and attitude. "They’re pretty expensive mutts," said Becky Loveless, wife of musher Joe Loveless. The Loveless family hails from Roy, Wash., where Joe works as a firefighter and EMT. "We’re hobby mushers," said Becky with a laugh, "this is our vacation." One of the many peculiarities about the IPSSSDR, and sled dog racing as a sport, is that even at the highest levels, there are amateurs competing next to the pros. Joe Loveless was last year’s winner of the ‘Fossil Fish’ award, which goes to the last-place overall finisher. He also snagged the same award in this year’s race. "We’re in last place, but we’re working hard," he said with a smile as he readied his team for Saturday’s race. There is a palpable sense of fraternity among the mushers. While this camaraderie is largely the result of shared interest, it is further garnered by the small size of the community. The IPSSSDR is one of the premier races in the lower 48 states, but drew just 22 mushers, two of whom withdrew before completion. As can be imagined, it takes a certain personality to be a musher, and that personality is rare. First and foremost, a person must love dogs. "This is the best dog in the world," said Stacey O’Neal, a 40-year old from Jackson, Wyo. who finished 16th in her rookie IPSSSDR appearance, as she squatted next to her lead dog ‘Horse,’ "I can’t even tell you, I’ll cry." It was true: tears were already budding in her eyes. Mushers also need to be very athletic. Over the seven days of the race that are scored (the first stage in Jackson is only used to determine starting order) mushers spent an average of about 28 hours on their sleds as they traveled over 300 miles with their teams. Mushers frequently will use one leg to help kick the sled along and when the team reaches a steep slope, the mushers will hop out and run alongside the sled to lessen the strain on the dogs, who are still pulling a 35-pound sled as fast as they can. Mushers are allowed to hitch as many as 12 or as few as six dogs to their sled for each stage of the race, drawing from a maximum pool of 16. During the race no dog can be added to the team and any injured dog must be carried in the sled. There is a lot of strategy that goes into choosing the right dogs for each stage. Different dogs run better under different conditions, some preferring it cold while some run better when the sun is out, some have better traction on ice while others have a firm foot for slush. As talented as the mushers must be, it is the dogs who most of the work. And they appear to love it. While lined up at the starting line there was always at least one dog jumping against the harness and howling its frustration at having to wait another second before tearing off down the trail. "They train by hauling a 600-pound ATV around," said a handler for one of the teams. "They can really pull." Brute strength aside, strategy plays a very important role. Knowing when to save dogs and when to go all out can make the difference between a stage win, and the overall win. "The best way to describe what’s going on is a game of chess where all the pieces are moving at once," said Frank Teasley, a Jackson resident who is Director and co-founder of the IPSSSDR, to the crowd at Saint Mary’s. The pieces are not only moving but moving quickly. "The slower teams will be moving at about eight and a half miles per hour while the faster teams will be pulling at about 18.5 miles per hour," announced Teasley. An Olympic sprinter in the 100-meter averages just four miles per hour faster over a sliver of the distance. Despite being over 300 miles and seven days long, the IPSSSDR is only considered a medium-distance race. Jacques Philip, a native Frenchman now living in Nenana, Ala. who finished second in this year’s race, recently won the Grand Odysee, which traverses 600 miles through the Alps. And then there is the Iditarod. Over the nine to 32 days (both records) it takes the competitors to complete this 1,150-plus mile race from Anchorage to Nome, mushers are alone with their teams in the frozen inland of Alaska. Some mushers, such as Doug Swingley who grabbed third place at the IPSSSDR, use the race as a warm up for the Iditarod, which he has won four times. "What’s interesting about this race is that you have us and the four-time Iditarod champion racing against each other," said Becky Loveless. "You don’t have to be afraid of all the big names. We’re all good friends." The overall winner of the 2006 IPSSSDR was Melanie Shirilla, from Lincoln, Montana, who finished with a combined time of 23 hours, 45 minutes, and two seconds. She was able to celebrate her victory with her husband, Swingley, once they had both crossed the finish line. Teasley had three goals when he launched the race in 1996: "to introduce spectators to the sport of sled dog racing, to highlight the beautiful state of Wyoming, and to spread the word about the need to immunize children under the age of two," he wrote in the IPSSSDR program. His first goal has been accomplished. Hundreds of people mingled at and around the starting line on the White Pine cross-country track that meanders between St. Mary’s and the Osgurthorpe farm. Scores of cars lined the shoulder of S.R. 224 as drivers watched the teams glide along the track. "I look out there and see nine teams going in nine different directions," said Teasley in a puzzled tone, "I hope one of them going the right way." His second goal changed slightly in 2005 when the race stopped running in a large loop that both began and ended in Jackson, Wyoming to a course that wound its way to Park City. As to his third goal, after the main event there was a youth race, the "Junior Stage Stop." Each community the race passed through was able to send up to three children, in 5th-8th grade, to this event. In order to qualify, the youths must perform 10 hours of community service and make $25 donation to the nonprofit Uinta County Community Youth Coalition, which offers free immunizations to toddlers.
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