Following in the footsteps of the last great race

First Posted: 3/18/2009

The Iditarod, the last great race, is run 1,100 miles from Anchorage to Nome.
For students at J.J. Jones Intermediate School, that great adventure hit closer to home on Wednesday.
We gather to honor the fine athletes, the adventurous mushers and their dogs that will depart in a few minutes on a journey across the wide and vast Jones School walking trail in search of learning opportunities, delicious snacks and fun games. We wish them all good weather, fast trail conditions and a very safe trip, teacher Cindy Wilson read from a proclamation to begin the schools first Mini-Iditarod Dog Sled Race.
With the snip of scissors and the roar of the crowd, the first musher was off around the track with his team of seven dogs pulling on their traces in excitement. At the first check point in Rohn, the dogs unhooked themselves and they, the handlers and the mushers took a lesson in commands, learning gee, haw, whoa and hike.
I think its pretty cool, said Kelsey Potts of the Iditarod. I learned how the dogs can understand what the person is saying.
It may be helpful to mention at this point that all roles, mushers, dogs, handlers and veterinarians, were played by fourth and fifth grade students in Wilsons reading classes. The students have been studying the Iditarod and tracking the mushers progress each day of the 12-day race. As a class, the students have been following Martin Buser, a four-time winner of the Iditarod, who is having a difficult race.
In addition, each of the fifth grade students researched the mushers and chose one to follow on their own. Nicolas Montgomery seems to have picked this years winner in Lance Mackey, who reached Nome, the final destination, hours before the closest competitor on March 18.
I like how his personality is, said Montgomery of his choice after doing research on all of the competitors.
While the 67 teams in this years Iditarod are competing against each other, students in Wilsons classes learned to work together for each leg of the race.
They tell us how to do stuff and then we all work together to get it done, said Potts of how the students maneuvered the sled through the curvy and some hilly terrain of the walking trail.
Just like the real Iditarod, there were checkpoints along way where mushers had to stop and complete a task, have a snack, allow their dogs to rest and have them checked over by the veterinarian. While the real race has 24 checkpoints, the one at Jones had only six.
Mushers and dogs were switched out at every checkpoint to ensure everyone had a chance to try every role. At the second checkpoint in Nikolai, dogs and mushers enjoyed a healthy snack of Goldfish and Juicy Juice. In the Iditarod, the dogs are fed fish because of their high protein content, something the dogs need plenty of on the grueling trail.
The third checkpoint for the Jones mushers was McGrath where a veterinarian checked over each dog to make sure it was still healthy and was getting enough rest.
A lot of people think that the race is cruel to the dogs, so were trying to show them that its not. The dogs love to run and the vet checks them to make sure theyre not being overworked, said Wilson.
At the fourth checkpoint, Takotna, the students learned what it is like for the volunteers once the teams leave each checkpoint. There were hay bales on which the dogs rest for the mandatory eight-hour layover and Wilson had a surprise in store for her students. It was there that they would participate in a pooper-scooper relay. She had put unwrapped tootsie rolls in the hay for the students to pick up.
At the fifth checkpoint in Iditarod, the students hit some stormy weather and had to stop to put jackets and booties on the dogs. By the sixth and final checkpoint in Safety, the cold weather had really picked up and the students participated in a cold weather relay race where they had to put on jacket, gloves and hats as fast as possible before stripping them off for the next person.
Finally it was on to Nome, the finish line of the race and the location of the goodies for a party to celebrate the end.
The planning for this event started about a year ago when Wilson began talking to her brother, Phil Tillotson, about what it would be like to have an Iditarod for her students who study the race every year. Tillotson travels to Alaska for business every year around the start of the race on March 7.
He sends pictures of the teams and information about the race to Wilson for her classes every year and volunteered to make a dog sled for this years event. He created a sled similar to the ones used by the mushers in the race, but due to the lack of snow in the area, he had to put wheels on the sled and a platform on which the mushers would stand.
In preparation for the great race, the students read books such as The Bravest Dog Ever: The True Story of Balto, Woodsong and Stone Fox.
Contact Morgan Wall at [email protected] or 719-1929.

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