A clear blue sky stretches across Creamer’s Field on this March day in Fairbanks. Though the temperature is about 20° F, my fingertips are slightly numb due to the nippy breeze. It is Day 3 of the Open North American Championship.
The Open North American Championship is the premier sprint race. Started in 1946, it is the oldest continuously run sled dog race in the world. Mushers come from the United States, Canada, Europe and even Japan to compete in this event. Some years there may be as many as 25 competitors for a purse of up to $35,000 (which is smaller total amount than the first place finisher of the 2009 Iditarod - $69,000). And depending on trail conditions, mushers may be running teams of up to 18 dogs: the term “open” means there is no limit on the number of dogs allowed per team.
The 2009 race proved to be rather historic. Egil Ellis, defending 2008 champion, broke the previous record for most wins in the North American set by the legendary George Attla, the “Huslia Hustler” – he now has a total of nine wins in this race. He also broke (his own) record for number of consecutive wins. This was his fifth straight victory.
But the win didn’t come easily. Going into Day 3, his rival, Buddy Streeper, had a narrow 2.4 second lead. Then he had to load a dog in the sled. He knew he’d have to work hard to make up the gap, so he kicked and pedaled the rest of the way to the finish line. He was rewarded with a 4.5 second overall win.
The Open North American Championship race is made up of three heats on three consecutive days. On Days 1 and 2, the heats are 20 miles. In the 2009 race, top times for the 20 mile trail were 65-70 minutes. For Day 3, an extension is added, making the total course for the day 28 miles. Nearly half of the competitors in the 2009 race completed this stretch in under 100 minutes, with Ellis and Streeper coming in at 94:44.6 and 94:51.5 respectively. A competitive sprint team averages 18 mph; for shorter races, they may reach speeds topping 20 mph.
Sprint racing is more of a spectator sport than distance racing. On Day 3, at Creamer’s Field, there were plenty of people out for the day. One innovative group was having an Alaskan tailgate party – complete with bonfire, folding table full of goodies, and Weber grill. Unlike the starting chute downtown, which is cordoned off from crowds, one can stand right next to the trail and watch the athletic dogs lope effortlessly by. It is a display of beauty and grace that one should not miss.