Oak Creek’s Tom Thurston prepares to return to Iditarod | SteamboatToday.com

Oak Creek’s Tom Thurston prepares to return to Iditarod

Tom and Tami Thurston load dogs at their Oak Creek Canyon home before a Saturday morning dog sled tour. Tom Thurston is preparing for his second run in the Iditarod dog sled race in Alaska.

— Tom Thurston stood at the gate of a new giant dog pen he erected after his last trip to the Iditarod, a large fenced-in area that he said allows his animals to stretch their legs after a long workout.

The dogs, the stars of Thurs­ton's Iditarod dreams, went crazy, barking and howling, pulling at their chains.

They were excited to see him, eager for whatever he had planned for the day.

Thurston braved the coldest cold and the fiercest winds he'd ever encountered in completing last year's Iditarod. He traversed some of the most desolate terrain in the United States, and he said he didn't truly recover for weeks afterward.

But he lights up at the prospect of going back to the massive Alaskan dog sled race, his eyes widening and his face brightening. That's why he's doing this: because he's as excited to see the dogs as they are to see him.

"I'm just looking forward to spending some time camping in the forest with my dogs," he said. "That's the best part."

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Thurston is headed back to the Iditarod. A year ago, he hoped to finish. Now, he's raised his goals.

Small changes

In many ways, Thurs­ton seems like a different man. There's the new dog area, expanding his already extensive kennel complex that stretches across much of the open ground at his family's Oak Creek Canyon home. Laser eye surgery rid him of the yellow-tinted eyeglasses he wore for years. He was already an entrepreneur, building homes as his day job, but the Thurston family took on a new business last year when it bought out Carol Bloodworth's Red Runner Dog Sled Tours. Tami Thurston, Tom's wife, took charge of running the tours with Tom helping out where he could.

But in other ways, the family is committed to remaining the same.

"When I crossed the finish line last year, I said, 'Tom, whatever you did to make this work, do it exactly the same.'"

Many of the same sponsors returned again to support Tom Thurston in his 1,112-mile quest. General Physics Corp. again is his main sponsor. Spiro's Tradin' Post in Oak Creek, Roc­ky Mountain Plumbing and Heating, Northwestern Sup­­plies, Grizzle-T Dog and Sled­­works and the Camilletti family all were large contributors, along with Gary Ertl, Northern Outfitters, Dr. Lee Meyring, RM Capital Advisors and Bud's Backhoe.

Same as last year, the drive to Alaska became a family affair. Tom Thurston's daughter Greta raised several hogs that served triple duty: first as 4-H projects, then as bacon and pork chops for the family and finally as pork cuts for the dogs during the race.

"She's one of my sponsors now, too," he said about Greta, one of his two young daughters. "The first thing we did before we decided to go again, we had a family vote. I voted 'no,' just to make it fair. It was 3-1, though."

A large stack of white bags in a spare bedroom still was waiting to be packed Saturday morning, less than one week from Tom Thurston's planned Friday departure. Carefully packed plastic baggies sat on a futon, some with food and snacks for Thurston and many, many more overflowing with food and snacks for his 16 best friends, the dogs that will drag him across Alaska in March.

The dogs will dine mostly on kibble. Carefully cut selections of frozen meat — chicken skins, beef and pork just like last year, plus beaver (yes, beaver) and tripe (cow stomach), which he discovered was popular with other mushers' teams — will serve as snacks.

For his own food, there will be everything from Pringles to hot dogs to sautéed shrimp, all exactly like last year.

New course

Tom Thurston may be intent on things being the same, but much about the 2010 Iditarod will be different, most notably the course.

The race still starts in the city of Anchorage and still ends in the small iced-in port of Nome. In even years, the trail between follows a more northerly route, however. This year's course will be about 50 miles shorter than last year's. The best part, Tom Thurston said, is although there's still a long stretch on the icy and lonely Yukon River, this year he will run with the wind at his back as opposed to into it like he was forced to do last year.

Still, he's not about to assume it will be easy going.

"I learned not to take anything for granted," he said about the lessons from his first experience that still linger with him. "That race is a monster. It's so intense. Even talking about it afterward last year was traumatizing. It will chew you up and spit you out. It does to good people every year."

Tom Thurston hopes that another year of work and last year's experience with his dogs can pay off and make one other thing about this year's experience different. He's taking 12 of the 16 dogs he took last year. Ten of those 12 finished the race, then he bought an Iditarod finisher from a fellow musher during a summer trip to Alaska, so he has 13 experienced dogs, plus all the knowledge he gained himself in his trek of 14 days, 3 hours, 36 minutes and 22 seconds. That time was good for 44th a year ago.

Now, he's aiming for the top 30.

But he's not willing to change his views on the race and his dogs to get there.

"It's a relationship based on trust," Tom Thurston said about the bond he and his dogs share. "I want to get into the top 30 this year, but I love these dogs. I'd rather finish 39th with 16 dogs than 19th with six."

If you go

What: Tom Thurston’s going-away party as he leaves for his second Iditarod. Thurston will put on a slide show with photos and stories from last year’s run in the Iditarod.

When: 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday

Where: Colorado Bar and Grill in Oak Creek