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With quirky setup, Denali Doubles serves as season's last hurrah for sled dog racers

Suzanna Caldwell
Four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King of Denali Park encourages mushers to try innovative approaches in the Denali Doubles race. Loren Holmes photo

Some of sled dog racing's biggest names will line up to race in Cantwell Thursday afternoon, though not quite the way you might expect.

Denali Doubles is a 265-mile sled dog race that uses a team approach to travel the out-and-back route from Cantwell to Paxson Lodge along the Denali Highway. Lance Mackey will be running, but with girlfriend (and cellist) Sabe Flores. Jake Berkowitz will team up with former rival Zach Steer. Aaron Burmeister will travel with his wife, Mandy.

Race organizer and four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King said the idea for the race came out of trying to share the sled dog racing experience with others.

"Mushing can be very lonely if you don't have someone to do it with," King said.

Gaining that 20-dog experience

The race is by invitation only -- the "No. 1" musher must have placed top five in a sled dog race, been honored as rookie of the year, or received a humanitarian award. Whoever takes spot No. 2 is up to musher one. It could be a training partner or a just a good friend. Last year Jim Lanier took his wife for their wedding anniversary.

"Often there is no way to bring someone who is not the musher," he said. "They never get an opportunity to see what 20 dogs feel like in a race team and environment."

Beyond the doubles aspect, a few other things set the race apart from other mid-distance races (including a $75 fine for whining). The biggest is the team setup and the sled configuration. The only rule is that there can only be one team of dogs, but the mushers determine how to drive them. The team can share the back of the sled runners or attach two sleds in tandem. One year, someone had 12 dogs in the front team, six dogs behind the first sled, with another sled behind that. Zoya DeNure and her team once competed on a custom-built sled with three runners.

King, who prides himself as innovator in the sport, loves the variety. He said each year, the winner has always gone a more traditional route, using two sleds, one behind the other, but he hopes one day an outside thinker will take the race.

First place prize: $5,000

"We need Kikkan (Randall) towed behind Rohn Buser's sled," King said.

That said, the race is still expected to be competitive. Father-and-son duo Martin and Rohn Buser are signed up, as are Berkowitz and Steer, both competitive racers. Fifth place 2013 Iditarod finisher Ray Redington Jr. is signed up to race with kennel partner Ben Harper, who's recorded impressive finishes in the Knik 200 (11th) and Copper Basin 300 (fourth) this season. The winner will pocket $5,000. 

That's a bit of a change. When the race first started in 2010, King modeled it on the All-Alaska Sweepstakes model where the winner takes all. For 2014, 20 teams have signed up. First place will get $5,000, with the rest of the purse split among the finishers.

The race is also the last chance to for mushers to check out their teams before the Iditarod begins March 1. Each musher gets to have 20 dogs on his or her pre-race roster for Iditarod vet checks, eventually selecting the 16 that will head down the trail toward Nome.

King said the trail on the Denali Highway is in good condition, perfect for a race where mushers have a long dog team that requires more space for turning and more snow for braking.

The course will be familiar terrain for many Alaska mushers. The Denali Highway has served as something of a superhighway for training this year, as trail conditions across much of Southcentral have been sloppy, icy and poor. King said right now the Denali Highway is "awesome," with no bare spots. Closed in the winter to motorized vehicles, King said conditions on the highway this season have been some of the best ever, despite some rain earlier in the season.

"Denali Highway is like the best kept secret in the state," King said.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow her on Twitter @suzannacaldwell.