Tom Thurston has Iditarod experience of a lifetime | SteamboatToday.com

Tom Thurston has Iditarod experience of a lifetime

— Tom Thurston had spent all of the past month on the road, but he could barely contain his enthusiasm on his first full day back at his Oak Creek-area home.

“He helps me train my dogs and allows me to keep a large pool of dogs by keeping some of my dogs at his kennel. I keep meat for the dogs in his freezer,” Thurston said, gesturing with his hands while almost frantically explaining the help he got from Kris Hoffman, of Grizzle-T Dog & Sled Works, while preparing for last month’s Iditarod Sled Dog Race. “People can go out to his cabin and meet my athletes from the Iditarod. They still have time. They can get a tour, experience the thrill of a sled dog race and meet the athletes.”

How about that Iditarod, the 1,130-mile race across Alaska’s interior?

He slowed, then came to a complete stop, his eyes still open but the look distant behind his yellow-tinted glasses.

“Wow,” he said.

He came back to life quickly. His eyes exploded open and the small collections of wrinkles surrounding them immediately pulled taut.

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“Wow,” he said, his arms again gaining speed and his face cut into a wide, boyish grin. “It was the real deal.”

A changed man

Thurston wasn’t always like this. Before leaving, he spoke with a careful and deliberate patience.

That was before he and his dog team survived the brutal trip from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska.

Ask the animated Thurston what the best and worst parts were, and you could get any of a dozen stories of harrowing moments. Eventually, it’s clear the best and the worst were one and the same, the fear of even the scariest cold moments washed away by the performance of his dog team.

“The Yukon River, it’s 2 miles wide,” Thurston said, slowly panning his head across his living room as if looking for hope on the icy river.

Mushers spent several days making their way through storms and up the frozen Yukon.

“There’s no protection. No shelter. Nothing,” Thurston said, slowly. “They bring you right up the middle, and it’s like a wind tunnel, blowing 40, 50 miles per hour right at your face.

“There’s the creepiest looking snow you’ve ever seen. You pass weird formations of ice and massive drifts of snow. It looks like the moon. But my dogs, they never flinched.”

The most technically demanding part of the race was through the mountains of the Alaska Range, early in the race.

“The trails through there are unbelievable,” he said, his eyes still registering his amazement. “Mushing in the lower 48 is like wiffle ball compared to the Major League Baseball in Alaska.

“My dogs just powered through it.”

The most mentally taxing section was the 150 miles over the Bering Sea, he said.

“You can see land 45 miles away, and it doesn’t ever seem to get any closer,” Thurston said. “It feels like you’re going backward out there.

“I got into Koyuk,” he said, recalling a checkpoint after a long stretch across the water. “They asked, ‘How was your run?’ I said ‘I’m glad there weren’t any trees out there. I probably would have hung myself.'”

He laughed loudly.

Teamwork

Thurston finished his first Iditarod in 14 days, 3 hours, 36 minutes and 22 seconds.

He was 44th out of 52 finishers. Fifteen who started the trek didn’t finish.

He said there was a lot that went into what he considered a very successful race.

Although the competition was fierce at the head of the race, he worked with other teams toward the back, taking and offering advice, sharing food and starting fires.

He said he did nearly everything right, from the packing to the preparation to the dogs, 16 separate engines that carried him through.

“Oh, the dogs!” he exclaimed. “I had no idea of the caliber of dog team I had.”

He dropped two dogs early in the race but later regretted that decision when they turned out to have mild cramps, not early signs of injury.

Another dog, an important leader named Tony, got sick. Finally, one of Thurston’s favorites, a friendly dog named Elton, had a swollen Achilles tendon and was dropped at a checkpoint.

All four made it back to Colorado happy and healthy, and the remaining 12 hauled Thurston to Nome.

He said if he went back – and the immense cost of the race and the demanding pre-race work that kept him from his family ensures that it is definitely an “if” – he’d hope to be in the top 30 next year, and the top 10 after that.

“These dogs are good enough,” he said.

Worth a laugh

The last leg of the Iditarod takes racers 22 miles down the coast from a checkpoint named Safety, across one final swatch of the sea and into Nome.

Crowds gather to welcome every racer as they pull up from the coast, down Front Street and under the official finish line, the Burled Arch dug into the frozen town that’s closer to Russia than Anchorage.

The Alaska Range, Yukon River and Bering Sea each were the most challenging aspect of the race in their own way, but Thurston faced hurdles all the way to the arch.

“I was 10 miles outside Nome, and I got caught in a ground blizzard,” he said, wrapping his arms around his body and adding a shiver.

He couldn’t see his dogs, and they couldn’t see the trail.

“I was on my hands and my knees, holding on to my gangline while my sled is back there doing barrel rolls,” he said.

Standing in the middle of his kitchen thousands of miles from a desolate stretch of ice, Thurston bent over and waved his arms, searching the kitchen counter for the lost Iditarod trail.

“I said, ‘Well, the powers that be are really making me earn this,'” he said. “And then I just laughed.”

And he did, filling his home and lighting up another icy story with a warm roar.

For more

– Plenty of information about this and past years’ Iditarod sled dog races can be found at http://www.iditarod.com

– Thurston’s race and his mushing career have also been chronicled in the Steamboat Pilot and Today. Thurston completes Iditarod, Iditarod looms for Thurston, Family, community key to Tom Thurston’s Iditarod Dreams, Thirstin’ Thurston dominates sled dog race, Local sled dog racer among sport’s elite with 200-mile win, Rush to the mush, A passion that digs deeper

Meet the man

A “Welcome Home” party for Tom Thurston will be from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Friday night at the Colorado Bar & Grill, 100 East Main St., in Oak Creek. Thurston will speak about his experience in the Iditarod.

Meet the athletes

Kris Hoffman, of Grizzle-T Dog & Sled Works, helped Iditarod competitor Tom Thurston prepare for the 1,130-mile trek across Alaska by helping train and shelter the many dogs necessary to compete in the world’s toughest sled dog race. Hoffman uses some of Thurston’s dogs for his sled dog tours outside Steamboat Springs. For more information about a late-season trip with Hoffman, call 870-1782 or check out http://www.grizzlet.com….

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