JOSEPH - Clouds rolled in over the mountains Thursday, sprinkling snow over dogs, mushers and spectators alike getting ready for the Eagle Cap Sled Dog Race.

Some dogs howled and barked like a football team chanting before a big game, while others stayed quiet and focused like a pitcher considering how to mow through the opposition.

The mushers and handlers tended to the animals, putting boots on their feet and distributing last-minute snacks while packing their own bags and getting their sleds in order.

Each musher runs through a different process before getting to the staggered starting line, some leaving their dogs in the truck kennels until about an hour before the start, and others giving them plenty of time to pace around.

"When they get off the truck and they see all the other dogs here, and they see us getting the sleds down, they know," Justin Harris of Bend said. "They get so excited to get going, so we need to be calm with them and confident."

Part of getting a dog ready for the race is putting on their foot coverings called "booties," which keep their feet from collecting balled snow and help protect them from injury.

The mushers also spend time re-checking their canines, making sure they're healthy and ready for the long journey ahead.

Each sled must contain safety gear for the musher, such as an arctic parka, cold-weather sleeping bag and other survival gear, as well as supplies for the dogs including extra food and booties.

As the 4 p.m. start time approached, the mushers began hooking their dogs up to their sleds, and volunteers helped ease the anxious dogs to the starting line.

"The dogs start jumping at the harness as soon as they know what's about to happen," Liz Parrish of Klamath Falls said. "Like any coach of any team, my concern is keeping them from being stressed and getting them focused on the task at hand."

Parrish is one of the four 12-dog, 200-mile racers and the second to leave the starting line, 2 minutes behind Dean Fairburn of Garden Valley, Idaho. There are seven eight-dog, 100-mile teams.

The 2-minute intervals are to keep the teams from bunching up at the gate, and the 12-dog teams are the first to leave.

According to most of the contestants, starting position has little effect on the outcome of the race, though each position has its own strategy.

"I'm in the lead as of right now," Fairburn joked more than an hour before the race began. "It gives the dogs a little incentive if they think they're breaking the trail."

As for the last to leave, overtaking the teams ahead also can fuel their competitive spirits.

"When there's a team up ahead to pass, the dogs work that little bit harder to get there," Harris, the third to last out of the gate overall, explained. "Then you just have to worry about that team having the desire to get back ahead."

The teams were set to arrive in Ollokot late Thursday night or early this morning for a checkpoint.

The eight-dog teams have a mandatory 6-hour rest period at that point, while the 200-milers are free to check out at any time and get back on the trail to Halfway, where they will be required to rest for 6 hours.

As with any marathon, the race is about pace and consistency, but as Harris explained, the last 10 miles can be thrilling if two teams are neck-and-neck for the win.

"I don't know who it's going to come down to, but if it's me at mile 90 with someone else not far ahead, it's on," he said. "The race is about the dogs, and if all the dogs come back happy, then it was a good race, but you've got to have that competitive edge."

The 100-mile race will finish today, while the 200-milers will reach the finish line Saturday.


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