'The Last Great Race'

Matt DeYoung • Mar 6, 2017 at 8:00 AM

At 22 years old, Justin Stielstra is one of the youngest mushers in the field at this year’s Iditarod sled dog race – one of the most physically and mentally demanding challenges a person can endure.

He’ll be leading one of the youngest dog teams in the field.

And while many of the more veteran mushers will be pushing their teams to the limit in their quest to reach the finish line in Nome, Alaska, Stielstra has a different goal.

“I’m going to take a nice, slow pace,” he said. “I have a couple 1-year-olds on my team. We’re just going this year to make sure they have a good first trip to Nome – make it fun for the dogs and me. We’re out to enjoy the trip.”

Stielstra, a 2013 graduate of Grand Haven High School, fell in love with sled dog racing while working for his uncle — eight-time Iditarod finisher Ed Stielstra, who owns Nature’s Kennel in McMillan, in the heart of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

“After I graduated, I went up to my uncle’s place in McMillan,” Justin said. “I was there for the first winter, then a couple years ago, I came up to Alaska for three years. Now I’m back working at my uncle’s, running dogs for him.

“I really fell in love with the sport – fell in love with the dogs.”

‘The Last Great Race’

The Iditarod is one of the most iconic races in the world – nearly 1,000 miles through the wilderness of Alaska, just one person and a team of dogs, following the historic Iditarod Trail between Seward and Nome.

The ceremonial start took place Saturday morning in downtown Anchorage. The official re-start of the race was scheduled for today at 11 a.m. (3 p.m. EST) in Fairbanks.

“The ceremonial start is an 11-mile run,” Stielstra explained. “Somebody bids to ride in every musher’s sled. Then the race usually starts the next day, but this year, because of a lack of snow up in Fairbanks, it starts Monday.”

In order to qualify for the Iditarod, mushers must have completed two approved 300-plus-mile qualifying races, plus another qualifying race of 150-plus miles.

Stielstra completed the Copper Basin and the Northern Lights 300-mile races, as well as the 200-mile Knik Sled Dog Race – all giving him a taste of the unforgiving Alaska wilderness.

More recently, he’s been training by spending a lot of time in the woods, going over the routine of quickly setting up and breaking down a modest camp and all of the tasks that he’ll have to complete while running the Iditarod.

“It’s mainly just repetition – I’ve done a lot of camping trips staying the night with the dogs, getting used to the system and getting myself used to the sleep deprivation so I don’t get too tired,” Stielstra said. “That’s the biggest challenge is the sleep deprivation. I’ve done a little bit of running here and there to get in shape so I can run up hills with my team.”

During the race, teams are required to take three mandatory stops along the race course. Other than that, mushers can push on as long as they — and their team — are able.

“It’s totally up to me, but I probably will only stop for six hours at a time,” he said. “I’ll probably only get about three hours of sleep each time. The dogs will get a heck of a lot more sleep than I will.”

Stielstra’s Team

Most of Justin’s dog sled team consists of young dogs from Nature’s Kennels. His job is to give the dogs a positive experience as they begin their sledding careers.

His team also includes Fergy, a dog he raised since she was a puppy.

“They’re usually 2 ½ to about 7-8 years old on the main competitive teams,” Stielstra said. “They’ll have someone like me take the younger team for them so the next year they can run.

“I’m really excited about that bond and connection with the dogs that you really only get out on a race like that – going through all the check points, hitting some of the original checkpoints that the serum run went through way back when.”

Stielstra’s referring to the 1925 serum run, when 20 mushers and about 150 sled dogs carried medicine more than 650 miles in 5 ½ days to save the town of Nome and surrounding communities from an incipient epidemic.

Stielstra’s team features 16 dogs. As the race progresses, some dogs drop out if they can’t handle the physical demands of the Iditarod.

“We don’t want to make them go any farther than they would want to go, so if they get too tired or sore, we drop them off the first chance we get,” Stielstra said. “They’re cared for there by vets and then flown back.”

He explained that a musher needs at least five dogs to continue the race.

“I’m going at a nice slow easy pace, so I want to finish with at least 12,” Stielstra said.

The record finish for the Iditarod is eight days and 22 hours. Stielstra’s goal is 10 ½ to 11 days.

“I’m guessing with this young team, it’ll be close to 12 days,” he said. “We’re going to make sure we finish with a happy, healthy team.”

During that time, he’ll be battling temperatures that could reach 60-below zero.

“I’m a little apprehensive about that,” he admitted.

Wyatt Suchecki, another Grand Haven native, will be traveling along the race route as part of Stielstra’s support team. His parents, Michael and Amy Stielstra, are also up in Alaska.

“They went to the Musher’s Banquet with me and they’ll be at the ceremonial start,” he said.

Follow the Race

Anyone who would like to follow Stielstra’s progress can do so online at http://iditarod.com/.

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