In the weeks preceding the 2009 Fur Rondy World Championship Sled Dog Races™ the anticipation for the opening scene had reached a crescendo. Pre-race publicity and exposure for the race was high and all the major open-class sprint racers were auditioning for starring roles. Posters were printed showcasing last year’s top 3 teams – Buddy Streeper, Egil Ellis & Bill Kornmuller. A professionally produced video segment parlayed the historical importance of the race and further elevated the rivalry amongst the top teams and what winning this race means to them. With the story line set and the actors in place, the stage was set for the first act of the weekend. It started out with a clank of thunder: 4-time Rondy champion Egil Ellis, always considered a top contender and threat to win, was down in 4th place. Three time champion and winner of the race for the last two years running Buddy Streeper, was in 3rd. Arleigh Reynolds, the promising and emerging musher from Salcha, Alaska was sandwiched in 2nd place just 9 seconds ahead of Streeper and almost a minute ahead of Ellis. The scene stealer, however, was Kornmuller. Not a stranger to the podium of the Rondy, he placed 2nd in 2007 and 3rd in 2008, Kornmuller has been clawing his way towards the top of the roster and center stage for the last decade. The first day’s performance, which placed him almost a minute and a half in front of 2nd place and nearly out of reach after just one day, was the run he was waiting 12 years for. “We were definitely on a roll today,” Bill told me after the heat. It’s a small stage in open-class sled dog racing. Complicating the rivalries is the interesting back story of Ellis and Kornmuller. They live a stones throw apart and join together to maintain and train on the exact same trails the entire season. However, their results here couldn’t be more different. Ellis won this race in his first attempt. Bill has been racing here since the early 90’s, and has been churning and grinding his way closer to the top spot each year. The differences don’t end there. Ellis changed the face of sprint sled dog racing with the introduction of his fast and powerful Alaskan Husky and Pointer crosses, while Kornmuller, although having some pointer blood in his lines via Streeper and Ellis, maintains a dog lot that is comprised mostly of athletes with a typical Alaskan Husky phenotype. Furthermore, Ellis appears content to perfect his line of dogs relying on repeated breedings to a select genetic line and rarely outcrosses outside of his kennel, while Kornmuller has adopted an approach that relies on the varied genetics and different strains of the tried and true Alaskan Husky. If each musher took a “dog compatibility” test they wouldn’t be more fittingly matched with their respective teams. Egil seems to thrive on a small group that he is intimately close with, relying on the bond with his dogs as much as they prosper from their bond with him. Kornmuller seems to hold in high admiration the “toughness” and relatively easy keeping of the Alaskan Husky and their ability to work hard day in and day out. All roads lead to Rome Rondy. Saturday’s heat saw Bill Kornmuller start slowly, losing almost 3 minutes by the halfway point to Streeper—if radio time reports are to be believed. Bill remembered the ever important “Run Fast” command he had penciled into his script notes for the second half of the race and ended up winning the heat by 40 seconds! Could he pull off a repeat performance on Sunday? Streeper also had a relatively good run, leaping over Reynolds by almost 2 minutes for the day. Ellis finished third for the day, but it wasn’t enough to move up. In contrast to the fast trail on Friday, Saturday’s heat saw almost 8 inches of fresh wet snow falling on the trail during the day. Many mushers say the second day is the hardest and this seemed to be the case this year as three of the top four racers, Kornmuller the only exclusion, had to carry dogs. Ellis carried 2 while he almost pushed his sled up Cordova Hill. “It was definitely the worst run up Cordova I’ve had in my career here,” Egil explained later. As fans and audience gathered Sunday morning on 4th Avenue we were greeted with sunny skies, cool temps and the feeling that the race order, at least the top spot, was in the bag. Leading man Kornmuller seemed to be able to call his team up at will and with over a 2-minute lead, he looked calm, poised and in control. Reynolds and Ellis were even further back and surely too far behind to challenge. Third place, however, still had some unwritten lines in the script. Reynolds held a slim 8-second lead over Ellis and was in unchartered territory. This was Arleigh’s first shot at a Rondy podium and the pressure was on to deliver the lines, hit all the marks, and run a smart yet fast heat to hold off sprint icon Ellis. In the end Arleigh, with a team of 12 strong dogs, put in a stellar run all the way to the finish and powered his way to the 2nd fastest day time to secure 3rd place overall. Ellis also had a solid run, but with only 8 dogs on the line, he coudn’t match the pace of the front runners and exited the podium stage left. Back at the front, the plot was thickening somewhat. Bill’s “go to” and pace setting lead dog of the past several years, Marvin, was injured somehow during Saturday’s phenomenal performance. Bill was forced to leave him out and run a string of 15 dogs. He left Patsy in lead, but replaced Marvin with team veteran Sam. Bill was not taking any chances, and it seemed to be a solid conservative decision. He didn’t need a super fast run to maintain his lead, he needed a steady, non trainwreck sort of performance. Buddy, however, didn’t receive the script changes before the race and had his own ending written. Heading out at a moderate pace with the “16 best dogs we own,” he, “Stayed on the mat and kept them down a bit in speed to allow them to achieve a good rhythm,” Buddy explained. His team responded to Buddy’s direction and put in a stellar, standing ovation performance that put him in first place by only 9 seconds. No one could recall a closer finish nor a more dramatic come from behind victory than Buddy pulled off this year. With his stalwart leader Dee, now 8 years old and resigned to leading the second Streeper team in the race, Buddy relied on veteran lead dog Miya and relative new lead dog sensation Heidi to set the pace and bring home the win to rave reviews.The curtain drew down to much applause on 4th Avenue in Anchorage for this year’s Rondy, but the stage is definitely set for next year. Streeper and Ellis are now tied with 4 wins each and are as hungry as ever. Kornmuller, “Still has the dogs,” and a young and promising team from Reynolds will play major roles for sure. The talent field and audition line is appearing to run deep. Many strong teams such as Ricky Taylor and Rookie of the Year Ken Chezik are knocking loudly on the back stage door. The two-week long Rondy festival is celebrating its 75th year in 2010 and is highly recommended as a sled dog racing and all around good time winter vacation destination. See you there.
Racing in the ACE Race with Tonya Helm On this episode of the Mushing podcast,