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Alaska bound: Local qualifies for Iditarod

Hadley resident Joe Gutowski (click for larger version)
June 01, 2011 - Next March, Joe Gutowski and some of the 28 dogs he keeps at his home in Hadley Township will compete in the Iditarod, the famous sled dog race in Alaska.

Gutowski recently received notification he has qualified for the 2012 event, which covers more than 1,150 miles from Anchorage to Nome in sub-zero temperatures over the course of roughly 12 days.

"I received an e-mail May 11 telling me I qualified," said Gutowski, 56. "I was shaking all over. I get to sign up for the race in June at a picnic in Anchorage, or I can sign up by mail. It's my rookie run. I still get goose bumps every time I think about it. I wish it was tomorrow."

Gutowski estimates it will cost about $32,000 for him to compete in the race. The entrance fee alone is $4,000. There are also the expenses incurred with food and supplies for the dogs for the duration of the race and he must drive 3,000 miles to Anchorage, taking 20 dogs in a trailer, stopping every few hours. The travel costs to and from the race are several thousand dollars, and then he must also pay the hotel expenses for two handlers, one who will stay in Anchorage, the other who will stay in Nome. Meanwhile, Gutowski will be sleeping outside on straw with his dogs, without even the benefit of a tent in subzero temperatures. The handlers will care for any of Gutowski's dogs who have to withdraw from the race, as well as their alternates. Competitors are allowed to race with up to 16 dogs.

Fortunately, Gutowski is being sponsored by ND Industries, for whom he works as a director of information technology. It was his boss that got him into the sport after all. Gutowski went on a sled dog run with him several years ago.

"It was on his bucket list," he recalled. "My boss went on to the next thing—Kilimanjaro—and I couldn't get dog sledding out of my mind."

For four years, he tried to figure out how to make dog sledding a reality for himself. In 2006, Gutowski contacted a musher, to buy sled dogs. He started with four, then added a few more, then, wanting to do more than recreational races, worked his way up to his current count of 28. They range in age from 2- to 11-years-old and average about 60 pounds each. The dogs are mostly mutts—huskies or other northern breeds mixed with greyhounds, pointers or weimaraners for example, to increase speed, but retain the heavy coat.

It costs about $1,000 per month to feed the dogs. During the summer, the dogs live outside in kennels or on chains at his Hadley Township residence, each with a small barrel-type shelter. He walks them for exercise during warm weather, but is unable to run the dogs when it is above 50 degrees.

"This is the worst part," Gutowski said as he sat outside on his deck looking at his dogs on a recent warm afternoon. "The dogs aren't happy, I'm not happy. My friends hate it because I pray for an early winter. You should see it when I pull the sled out—the dogs jump straight up and down."

The dogs spend from September to March in the Upper Peninsula at a 13-acre training center. All winter long, Gutowski goes up every weekend to train his dogs. They will routinely run 60-80 miles without stopping and are capable of doing up to 120 miles without resting. He will run the dogs 100 miles per day during the Iditarod to finish competitively.

To qualify for the Iditarod, Gutowski finished in the top 75 percent of the U.P. 200 sled race and also ran two 300-mile qualifiers within the past two years. He had to receive good marks from race marshals and veterinarians. A review board decided his eligibility.

In the Iditarod, he expects to compete against nearly 70 mushers. The first place winner receives $69,000, and a new Dodge pick-up truck valued at $45,000. There are other cash prizes given all the way to 30th place and everyone who finishes receives $1,049, which is enough for the plane ride out of Nome, but Gutowski is aiming for a small piece of metal.

"There is no way a rookie can compete against guys who have run this for 10 to 25 years," he said. "I just want to finish. If I run it in about 12 days, I will win a belt buckle."

Gutowski said his wife of 31 years, Sara, hopes he gets that coveted buckle. He calls her "a saint" and says she knows that if he doesn't finish the Iditarod, he will want to run it again.

He believes he is made to be a musher, however—he loves the cold and the misery.

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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