It’s been said that the Can-Am Crown 250 is one of the most difficult races in which to participate – and it is certainly the longest and largest race east of the Mississippi. However, it was surprising when this year’s winner, first-time Can-Amer but veteran musher Rick Larson of Sand Coulee, Montana, said it was the most difficult race he’d ever run. And he’s run a lot this year alone. Larson set out in January to mush across North America, starting his epic with the Siskiyou 135 at Mt. Shasta in California, and ending in Fort Kent, Maine, in March. He also competed in the Iditarod in 2004 and 2006. “I actually had to work in this one,” Larson said immediately after grabbing the win from Mainer and three-time Can-Am champ Don Hibbs. This was the first race, including the Iditarod, in which he had to help his dogs by pumping, poling and running up hills. “It’s no gimme,” he said. “I think it’s a very demanding race. It’s more demanding than the Iditarod. I actually had to participate. I’m tired, but it was worth it,” he added. So what makes the Can-Am so challenging? Several factors contribute in varying degrees each year, however some are constant such as rules requiring mushers to be self-sufficient during the race. There are volunteer handlers at all checkpoints to assist in moving teams and to fetch straw bales for the dogs’ bedding. But even at the first and last checkpoints where mushers can mingle with their personal handlers and the public, they are permitted no other assistance and the rules state mushers are not to help each other except “to ensure safety and animal welfare.” Rules also require teams to start with a minimum of eight dogs, a maximum of 12, and must retain six to finish successfully. Most start with 11 or 12. After mushing for up to nine hours and 67 miles at a stretch, a musher’s first concern is always for his or her team. It can take about an hour and a half or more to feed, water, massage, and bed the dogs. All that is after mushing on trails of varying conditions. The trail crews do an outstanding job grooming and marking the trails, however, according to participants, it is sometimes impossible for them to stay ahead of snowfall. This year, nearly a foot of snow fell within the first two days of the race with the bulk of it dumping the night before the start. Groomers just couldn’t keep up despite working all night long. The Can-Am 250 is run in five stages. The trail changes each year depending on logging operations, private landowners and the logging camp rest stops made available by Irving Woodlands – a major sponsor of the 250. The stages range from about 30 to 70 miles long and there is sustenance at all the stops for the mushers, and showers and beds at most of them. The first leg of the race, to Portage checkpoint, is usually between 65 and 70 miles long – this year it was just over 67 – leading teams usually do it in about seven hours. This year, because of the slow, snow-clogged trail, the fastest teams arrived after more than eight and half hours of mushing. Statistics posted on the Can-Am’s very well maintained website (http://can-am.sjv.net/) are evidence of the trials competitors faced this year. Most years, top teams run an average of nine to 10 mph in the first stage. This year, the fastest speed posted for the first leg was brought in by Herve Belanger of Berry, Quebec, at 7.82 mph. Other front-runners came in at around 7.6 mph. Belanger finished seventh. As mushers grabbed a quick meal of spaghetti with meat sauce at Portage, they chatted about the difficult conditions. There was not only a lot of snow, but it was heavy and the trail was described as “punchy” by several racers. It was hard for the dogs, Belanger said. “It was hard for the mushers too,” he added, saying he had already broken a ski pole. “It’s like walking around in the dark and you miss an expected step,” said Caroline Blair-Smith. “They lose their rhythm,” she added. Blair-Smith of Albany Township, Maine, and a former 250-competitor, placed fourth in this year’s 30-miler. “It’s been hard for all of us,” said Bruce Langmaid of Blackstock, Ontario, after arriving at Maibec, the third checkpoint. “There’s not a person leaving here that doesn’t have a level of uncertainty.”Langmaid has placed in the top three five times – every time he’s competed in the 250 until this year – winning it twice. His eighth place finish this year was indicative of the demanding circumstances and competitive field. In addition to snowfall, the last three years have seen warm temperatures which tax the already hardworking dogs even more. This year, temperatures on start day were hovering in the low to mid-30s and didn’t fall into colder temperatures of the mid-20s until Monday – day three of the race. For those who finished on day four, the thermometer finally dropped to single digits – too late to help the fastest teams. The heat was a factor in Bill Mattot’s decision to scratch three years consecutively. He believes he’s the only musher who still attempts to race with purebred Alaskan Malamutes. Sitting amidst stuffed wildlife at Two Rivers Lunch in Allagash, which serves as the final checkpoint for the race, Mattot said his canines are freighting dogs accustomed to long distances, but in much colder tundra conditions. Their heavy coats, beefy bodies and beautiful purebred faces elicit admiring exclamations from spectators at the starting line, however they are not well suited to the warmer temperatures and hilly terrain of this race. Mattot said he felt bad taking a spot away from a more competitive team – one such as Canadian Rene Marchildon, a former second place finisher who did not make it off the waiting list to compete in the 250 this year. Instead he won the 60-miler. Mattot plans to rethink and regroup for next year. Then there’s the terrain. Anyone who believes northern Maine is flat has never run the Can-Am. Mushers report that the fourth and fifth legs are the most treacherous. There are at least eight climbs in the fourth stage with most being of the “short-but-steep” variety. The last stage consists of a couple of steep climbs at the beginning and end with an approximately 10-mile slog in the middle. And just to put things in perspective – in the first stage teams gain 1,000 feet of elevation in 28 miles and lose most of it again by the time they reach Portage only to climb 1,100 feet again in 35 miles in the next stage. Larson said these were the biggest hills he’d ever competed in, and remember, he lives and trains in Montana. “It was the steepest, most continuous up and down I’ve ever raced,” he said from his Montana home a few weeks after the contest. And according to three-time winner Martin Massicotte of St. Tite, Quebec, the required rest times are short forcing competitive mushers to leave sometimes before they’ve had as much rest as they would have liked. Official rules require a minimum of 14 hours of rest with a mandatory five hours spent at Allagash – the final checkpoint before the finish nearly 50 miles away. The remaining nine hours can be spent at any of the other three stops in increments left to the musher’s discretion. Mushers have a variety of strategies about running and training for this race. Massicotte, who has taken one of the top three spots in the 250 eight times, including winning it three, said he trains his teams in deep snow to prepare for the Can-Am. They aren’t fast, he said of his team this year, which included seven new dogs out of his starting team of 11, but they’re tough. He said before the race that he planned on “letting the people run the race,” and then repositioning himself at Maibec. Massicotte finished an uncharacteristic sixth this year. Rita Wehseler, of Tofte, Minnesota, seems to be the uberwoman of the Can-Am 250. She finished second this year – the closest a woman has ever come to winning in the race’s 15-year history. Amy Dugan and Ashley Simpson, both of Shirley, Maine, have come in fourth in previous races. Wehseler was also the first woman to ever finish the 250 in 2001 taking seventh place and the only woman to finish in last year’s competition, coming in 11th. Wehseler’s strategy? “I am not racing until I get to Maibec (the third checkpoint),” she said sitting before a steaming plate of spaghetti at the first checkpoint Saturday evening. But anyone who knows Wehseler knows she just can’t help being competitive. “When you grow up in a family of 13, food is competitive,” she said admitting her determined nature. And apparently, that competitiveness paid off. Both she and Larson passed Hibbs, who had been leading for most of the race, within the last few miles of the finish line. “When I saw Don, I said, ‘You’re toast,’” she commented while showering her team with emotional hugs at the finish line. “I didn’t expect to pass Rick, but I certainly didn’t expect to pass Don,” she added. By all indications and according to long-time followers of the Can-Am 250, this was the most exciting and competitive. In addition to Wehseler’s accomplishment, there were a host of firsts. It was the first time Canadians did not dominate the race. With Larson, Wehseler and Hibbs taking first, second and third respectively, it was the only time that Canadians were shut out of the top three positions. “I tried to get one for Canada but the Americans took it all,” cried fourth-place finisher Normand Casavant, of Val Des Lacs, Quebec, as he came across the finish line. This year saw eight women competitors, more than ever before, and the most rookies, nine, two thirds of whom finished the race, which was also unprecedented. Despite, or perhaps, because of the challenges of the Can-Am, many mushers return year after year. They speak glowingly of the volunteers, the people of Fort Kent and the professionalism that this race embodies. Dennis Cyr, an annual participant and Can-Am board member, dropped from the 60-mile race to the 30-mile competition Friday with the knowledge that he’d be up grooming trails all night. Cyr’s dedication to the Can-Am is indicative of that of the entire board of 22 and innumerable other volunteers – handlers, veterinarians, cooks, HAM radio operators, groomers, officials and drivers, among many others. Casavant said this is his favorite race because it is so professional, the volunteers are so helpful and the veterinary care is unparalleled. If you are considering racing in the Can-Am 250 next year, be forewarned – another first this year – the 30 slots filled up within a week of registration, which opened August 1 this year. Race Vice President and website guru Stan Flagg recommends checking the site near the end of July for registration dates.Jodi Hausen is a freelance writer, photographer and radio producer living in Maine. Her work has appeared in the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Central Maine Newspapers and the Sun Journal and has been heard on Maine Public Radio’s “Maine Things Considered.” She is a Registered Maine Guide, a wilderness medical instructor, EMT and volunteers with Wilderness Rescue Team. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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