Before the racing of the Willow Junior 100 got underway on Friday afternoon, Doug Ruzicka had a couple rule changes to announce to the mushers. This year, no cell phones are allowed, he warned. And when the mushers arrive at the halfway point, they are not allowed to talk to their parents.
“This is the only time before you’re an adult that you can say to your parents ‘get away’,” he said.
Ruzicka explained that help from parents, by phone or on the trail, would violate the rules restricting outside assistance, and they’ve had just that problem in recent years. Though it might be understandable that parents would want to help, junior racing tries to give up-and-comers the chance to work through challenges on their own and demonstrate good dog care. They’re here to gain that experience, organizers say.
When they leave the start line and head east into the woods, eleven racers leave a lot of experience behind them. The teens running the race come from mushing families, by and large. Iditarod veterans aren’t hard to spot. Jim Lanier and Mitch Seavey have sons participating. Vern Halter hosted the start of the race and Karen Ramstead acted as race marshal.
Ramstead said she remembers the feeling of being new to racing and getting ready to start a long run. She called it hugely intimidating. “They should be nervous. One hundred miles is long way to go by dog,” she said.
A race like the Willow Junior 100 will certainly present challenges to the racers, but organizers also try to keep it fun. Organizer Christine Stitt says racers take a mandatory 10-hour layover at the halfway point at a place called Grandpa Joe’s Lake. There is no entry fee.
Seven boys and four girls raced this year. They laughed, hugged and clowned around like buddies more than competitors before the start. Each became much more focused – perhaps a bit anxious - when it came time to hook up the team and go.
At 4pm, the racing started as snow fell. It didn’t take long for all the teams to disappear down the trail. Parents could drive to the halfway point if they wanted to get a glimpse of the racing, as long as they followed a new race rule. There’s a midnight curfew to depart the checkpoint, not for the teens but for the parents.