Arleigh Reynolds made it official on Sunday night: He won't be back.
"It's time for me to step off the runners," said Reynolds, who won his second Fur Rendezvous Open World Championship Sled Dog Race last weekend. Among his reasons are his new duties as associate dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine, which will start taking students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks next year.
Reynolds told attendees at the Rondy Musher's banquet that he had seriously contemplated not competing this year. But his favorite lead dog, Guts, who has participated in five Rondy races, seemed fresh and eager at age 7.
"I said, 'Well girl, if you have one more year in you, I guess I do too,' " Reynolds said. "It's fitting and appropriate that we should retire together."
Five-time Rondy champion Egil Ellis, who came in third this year, also put an end to doubts about his future participation.
"I don't think I'll be back next year," he said.
Like Reynolds, he originally planned not to participate this year but fell behind schedule in closing down his kennel in Willow.
"We had these dogs, so why not do the Rondy?" he said. "Starting with just 10 dogs was a risk on my part, but we basically put together whatever was left in our kennel can came down."
The retirement of two Rondy champions seems to open the field for others. Kevin Cook, who came in second this year, was unequivocal. "I will be back next year," he said.
Among other highlights of the banquet were the remarks of Lance Mackey, the former winner of the long-distance Yukon Quest and Iditarod races who participated in the Rondy sprint race for the first time. He came in 14th in the field of 15, but spoke with enthusiasm.
"I don't know what took me so long," he said. "That was awesome. My dogs had never seen crowds before, never been passed. I looked at that little sled and said, 'Dang, my coffee table's bigger than this thing.' "
He compared the Rondy experience with the ceremonial start of the Iditarod. Both cover parts of the same trail but the clock isn't running for the Iditarod start in Anchorage. Mushers carry passengers, snag cups of cocoa or hot dogs from bystanders and basically take their time.
"I was coming down Cordova hill heading for the corner on the first day," Mackey said. "That's when it hit me. This is the first time it counted."
Another interesting speaker was John Hanson, Jr., who flew in from New Stuyahok with little except his dogs. He slept at the Tudor Road clubhouse, borrowed equipment, ate donated food and even received donated veterinarian services. "It was three years since some of the dogs had been de-wormed," he said.
Marvin Kokrine, whose problems on the trail included encountering a loose dog and losing his own leaders when a rope broke, drew a laugh when he made the deadpan comment, "It was quite a race. I was listening on the radio. Very exciting."
Jack Berry, whose poor showing on the second day of the three-day race earned him the Red Lantern award for last place, was undeterred.
"I survived. We'll be back next year," he said.
Race officials said they are working with Greater Anchorage, Inc., the organization that puts on the Rondy, to create a purse of $100,000 or more for next year in hopes of attracting a bigger field and new mushers.
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM