Saturday, March 31, 2012
Steamboat Pilot & Today sports reporter and photographer Joel Reichenberger can be reached at 871-4253 or jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com.
Find more columns by Joel here.
If he had the answers, he’d have the trophy.
Nothing about the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is easy. Nothing in Alaska’s seemingly endless frozen interior can be easy, and in his fourth go at the incredible adventure race, Oak Creek musher Tom Thurston learned yet again just how difficult things can become and how hard it can be to find the answers to the many problems.
Thurston, twice an Iditarod finisher, pulled out of this year’s race in the small village of Unalakleet, 750 miles from the start of the demanding event and 220 miles from the finish.
Finally back home with his dog team last week, the pain of that decision — and the ease of it — still was fresh.
“If I had pushed forward, it would have been for me, not the dogs,” he said.
Thurston’s progress in the Iditarod has been one of surges and restarts. When he first took to the race four years ago, he was thrilled to reach the Nome, Alaska, finish line. A year later, unsure whether he’d get another chance, he pulled out the stops, hoping he and his team could earn a high finish.
That didn’t work, and he eventually scratched 425 miles in.
Last year, he went back to training and was happy just to finish and serve his dogs with valuable Alaska experience. This year, again, he hoped to push the pace and crack the top half of the standings.
For a while, it appeared that might happen.
In a wild but desperately cold race, Thurston stayed near the leaders for much of the first leg. He drifted back as the race went on, but not far, and even though the brutal conditions were wearing on his dogs, the athletes — four legged and two — were enjoying every step.
“When things were going well, the dogs were eating and we were moving down the trail,” Thurston said. “We pulled into Cripple (500 miles into the race, about halfway), and it was 52 below zero. There was a full moon but not a cloud in the sky, and the Northern Lights were going crazy. There were purples and greens and oranges. The whole sky was going nuts, and we are out there in the middle of nowhere. You didn’t need a headlamp to see, everything was so bright.
“That was probably one of the best runs I’ve ever had with my dogs.”
Things took a turn for the worse when Thurston and his team hit the Yukon River. By the time they finished that grinding stretch, he was down to 10 dogs. By the time they reached the coast and considered a run toward Nome, he was down to eight.
Thurston said he didn’t have it in him to push his dogs any further.
Returning next year long has been a part of Thurston’s plan, but he said he never commits until he can put a little distance between the previous race.
“If I had the clear answers, I’d be standing with that trophy,” he said. “It wasn’t an easy year, but it never is in the Iditarod.”
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com