Off and running

By Jennifer Hobbs, Observer Correspondent January 27, 2012 08:51 pm

Eagle Cap Extreme dog sled teams head for the hills

Going into Thursday's Eagle Cap Extreme Dog Sled Race, 16 registered teams underwent final vet checks in Joseph and Enterprise, with dogs, mushers and fans alike already eagerly anticipating the trail.

Interested spectators and scores of elementary students turned out to meet the teams, while several vets ensured that the Malamutes and Huskies were ready to run.

In spite of recent rain in the valley, there is plenty of snow on the course, according to veterinarian and second-year race President Randy Greenshields.

"There's lots of snow up there and it should be a great race. We have more mushers than ever," Greenshields said. 

Greenshields said a few planned alterations to last year's route were shelved because of snow conditions, so mushers will run the same course as last year, but with an additional 31-mile pot race being added to the traditional 100- and 200-mile options. Six teams are signed up for each of the longer races, and four teams are doing the new shorter race.

In addition to a number of seasoned and returning participants in the field, three young mushers are entered in the race this year, including brothers Garrett and Trevor Warren, who are 18 and 14, respectively, and Jenny Greger, who is 16.

This is the Warren brothers’ first time at the Eagle Cap race, but both have dreams of eventually doing an Iditarod. Their mother Laurie occasionally races, too — their family has 26 sled dogs.

Sleds for the 100-mile race run with eight dogs, while the 200-mile race requires 12. Most teams started training in August or September, working up gradually to 25-30 mile runs. Snow isn't necessary for training, but according to several mushers, the more time running on snow before the race, the better for the dogs. Nylon or fleece booties are used to protect the dogs’ feet against snow and ice injuries.

Mushers explained the lead dog is of particular importance because leading the team requires a dog that has both a very high drive forward but is also able to shut off that urge to run and respond to the musher's commands when needed.

According to mushers, sled dogs are generally chosen based on personality and athletic ability, and may differ considerably in size and appearance. But one thing is common to them all: the love of running. 

Known for almost deafening levels of enthusiasm and excitement from the dogs at the start line, equally impressive is the abrupt change when the race finally begins.

“They bark until you start running, but as soon as the race starts, it's like a switch was flipped," said musher Steve Riggs, from Olney, Mont., who is doing the race for the third time this year. “As soon as you pull the release and they're running, there's nothing but quiet and full speed ahead.”

According to Greenshields, more than 150 volunteers have been involved in making the event a success. Now in its eighth year, he said the race was created in an effort to have something exciting planned as a focus and a draw during the slow winter months.

Cash prizes are awarded for finishers, with the biggest prize of $1,700 going to the first-place winner of the 200-mile run. The best cared-for team receives an award of $250. But mainly, the mushers are here because they, like their dogs, love the excitement of running in a beautiful place.

"They just want to run; they can’t help it," said veteran musher Paul D. Ogden. He said he is running older dogs this year and won't be pushing hard. He said his goal is to finish with all dogs in the harness and every tail wagging.

For more profiles of the mushers and information and updates on the race, see the Eagle Cap Extreme website: http://www.eaglecapextreme.com.