JUNIOR MUSHERS – WILLOW JUNIOR 100

Featured in the Sept/Oct 2009 Issue: There are several junior distance races in Alaska. One that is quickly becoming known as fun and challenging is the Willow Junior 100. Starting and ending at Vern Halter’s kennel in Willow, the race follows historic trails up towards the mining district of Hatcher Pass. I sat down with Christine Stitt, who along with her husband, Michael, organize the race. G.S.GS: How did you get the idea to start a sled dog race in Willow?CS: Initially we did it because all the junior races around here, except for the Junior Tustumena, run through a Sunday. I don’t like having a race on Sundays. My children suggested that I start a race and have it happen on Friday and Saturday. I thought, “That sounds fine, but I haven’t the slightest idea of how to start a race.” What I did was observe the junior Iditarod for a year. I saw how they handled the race starts, the sponsorship, the banquets, and everything. I started from day one asking ourselves the main question, “If we were junior racers, how would we like this race to be run?”I also used the Cantwell Jr. race as a model. I got the idea to do a race video from the Cantwell race. The Willow Junior 100 is a non-political race. We don’t have a board, there is no bickering, no fighting among organizers. It truly is our race. If I decide tomorrow to not run it, there is no race.We started in partnership with the Don Bowers Memorial race, but that didn’t work out, and then AIH (Alaska Industrial Hardware) came on as a major sponsor, and we really started to move fast from there.GS: What were some of those things that you thought junior mushers would want in a long distance sled dog race?CS: I wanted to make it the best experience for the children, to make it friendly, parent friendly, school friendly, and dog friendly. I felt it was better to have them take a day off school on Friday, than to go into school on Monday tired from a weekend of racing. With our race, they have Sunday to rest. To make it dog friendly, I wanted to make sure, that whatever route the race took, it was safe for dogs and mushers and that there was adequate mandatory layover time. I really wanted the parents to be involved without helping out with the junior mushers’ dog care responsibilities. At our race, the parents can all come out to the halfway point, the layover point, and spend time in a fun atmosphere. They could see the kids come into the checkpoint, sit around the bonfire and have a good time.GS: I was the race marshall for the first year of the event, when it was run on the Deshka, and Susitna rivers. You changed the format to an overnight/camping format. Were you trying to simulate conditions that would prepare the mushers for adult mid and long distance races?CS: Yes. We had an 8-hour layover, and a checkpoint there with a heated wall tent, and other structures donated by AIH. I spoke with Vern Halter, and this year’s race marshall Wayne Curtis, and we all agreed that an 8-hour was sufficient. All the dogs and kids handled the campout well. We also had the 8-hour because we thought it would take longer for the kids to get to the halfway point, and that the leaders would leave close to daylight on Saturday. As it happened, the kids scorched the run up to the checkpoint and ended up leaving in the dark. Travis Beals left at 2 a.m. to go back down the mountain. It took him 4.5 hours to get up the mountain to the halfway point, but it took 6.5 hours to get back down because of the darkness.GS: Are there any changes for your third annual race this year?CS: Yes, we are changing the format again. We are still going to start at Vern Halter’s Dream a Dream Iditarod Dog Kennel. We are going to run on the historic Haessler-Norris trail system and up the historic Herning trail to a spot called Grandpa Joe’s Lake. We gain about 1200 ft elevation on the way up. We may change the exact route up the mountain in order to make it a loop trail rather than and out and back. We’ll camp out again there. We are also going to start later on Friday—4 pm and have a 10 hour layover so the teams can all leave in the daylight on Saturday. Donna Quante of HuskyProductions is producing another DVD for us and she needs to be able to film in the daylight. GS: What are the rules for the mushers during the layover?CS: The kids are only allowed outside assistance if there is an emergency and/or if their team is out of control and in a dangerous situation. They have to take care of all of their dogs’ needs. Their parents aren’t allowed to help in any way. GS: Where did the mushers sleep? CS: AIH donated a heated wall tent, but of course, the kids just stayed up having snowball fights, talking and hanging out around the bonfire. We have two of those tents this year, and one of them will be a dedicated mess hall.GS: The Junior Quest and Junior Iditarod have some kids competing with professional dog teams. Do any of those junior mushers enter your race?CS: The only rule we have pertaining to that is that you must have non-professional dogs in the race. You can’t take a dog that has run the Iditarod or Quest. We want the dogs to be the junior musher’s responsibility not just during the race, but over the whole winter. GS: Is there a limit to how many teams can enter?CS: We had capped it at 10, but this year it will be 15. We have lots of volunteers, so we think we can handle 15. GS: One thing I’ve noticed about your race is the amount of help both on the trail and at the checkpoint. I think that is great and it increases the safety factor for the kids racing. I know, first hand, how hard it is to get volunteers to help out at a race how do you get your race “volunteer army?”CS: There isn’t a single paid person on our crew. The majority of folks on the trail are friends of ours from church. But we also had a lot of other volunteers. AIH also had some people out there to help on the trail.GS: It was really nice to see the level of involvement, at the corporate level, as far as sponsors go. How did you get so many sponsors onboard?CS: Actually I just go through your magazine and make phone calls. By and large they all send me stuff. When you mention junior mushers, it makes it a little easier. I think it also helps that I am the only contact for the race. There are no politics or a board of directors. It’s just me organizing the race. I think they like that. Every dollar that comes in goes right back to the mushers. They even get their entry fee back. We have no purse, but really nice trophies. Last year each musher got all sorts of prizes and tote bags, custom embroidered with the race logo. Every musher gets a plaque, every musher gets a medal, plus whatever other things sponsors such as WDMA, First Choice Physical Therapy, Big Lake Lions Club and Mushing Magazine donate.GS: How do you deal with the mentality about raising kids these days, that every kid gets a “star” now matter how well they do? I mean, when I was a kid, if you weren’t good enough to play ball, you sat on the bench—and didn’t complain about it. And your parents didn’t take the coach aside after the game and say, “ I noticed you didn’t play little Johnny today.” I think it forced us to want to do better, to achieve more. Real life is like that. You are rewarded for your effort. In today’s world, it seems like, maybe I’m seeing a narrow sampling, but it seems like the kids nowadays have a sense of entitlement. If every kid gets a trophy, how do you reward the ones who really worked hard and did better? CS: Well, everyone gets recognized. Of course the top finishers get bigger trophies! The important point, if I can quote my 6th grade coach, is that you do not quit. My goal is to let every junior musher know that I’m proud of them for finishing, and accomplishing that.The 2010 date for the Willow Junior 100 sled dog race will be FEBRUARY 12th & 13th.More information and rules packages can be found at: willowdogmushers.com.

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