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Mushers take to the snow in Sandwich race

Raymond Doubleday of Lisbon pulls into the finish line. Erin Plummer. (click for larger version)
February 23, 2011
SANDWICH — Dogs and their racers took to the snow and sometimes ice-covered trails for the annual Sandwich Sled Dog Race.

Around 36 mushers gathered on Saturday morning in North Sandwich for the annual race that has been a racing tradition, despite a few years where the race did not run. Mushers could race for 45 miles or 20 miles starting on Bennett Street and racing down trails through Wonalancet and Tamworth before returning to Bennett Street.

Mushers came from across New England with a few from New York, Pennsylvania, and Canada. Of the 36, 13 took part in the 45-mile race, 20 were in the 20-mile, and there were three Skijorers.

This year was the 25th year of the race. The race started in 1986 but did not run for five years due to a lack of volunteers. The race was picked up again in 2009 but had to be cancelled in 2010 due to lack of snow.

This year's race had an abundance of snow, though high winds on Saturday and a warming period at the end of the week created for some concerning conditions that organizers and mushers managed to overcome.

"The dogs like it and the mushers like it; they like it cold," said race director Julie Dolan.

This year's race started a week earlier than usual, which Dolan said proved beneficial. This year there were around five more mushers than in 2009. While Dolan said more mushers were hoped for, she said it was likely there were many holdouts due to trepidation over the spring-like weather at the later part of the week.

"We certainly had a lot of spectators, maybe more than we expected," Dolan said.

The wind was problematic at times. Mushers reported that the wind created maneuvering issues during some areas of open field. The tent that housed the Sidehiller Café was frequently blown over.

Mushers gathered at the starting line between 7 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. for the 9 a.m. start. Races ran through the afternoon with the last musher in the 45-mile race coming in around 3 p.m.

Many mushers described the course as a challenge with many sharp turns and the recent warming and freeing making for some icy conditions.

"This is always a challenging course that has been a tradition," Dolan said. "The mushers know this is a tough course and a challenging race."

Dolan said the high winds may have kept some spectator numbers down, but there were still a high number watching the race from various points.

The winners were announced later that evening at a ceremony at Sandwich Central School.

The winner of the 45-mile race was 13-year-old Bailey Vitello of Brookfield, Mass., completing the course in 3 hours, 26 minutes, and 38 seconds. Vitello said he has been on a sled since he was an infant.

"My mom used to stand on the sled with me, she would stand behind me before I could even walk," Vitello said.

Vitello attends Tantasqua Junior High and balances racing with being a kid.

"It's really fun, it's a lot different than most kids lives," Vitello said. "Keeping good grades, keeping engaged in school."

This was his first time racing in Sandwich and he said he definitely wants to come back

"I'm very proud of my son as always and I would be proud of him no matter how he placed," said his mother Eileen Vitello.

Kathy MacKay of Parishville, N.Y., won the 20-mile race at a time of 1 hour, 19 minutes, 55 seconds. MacKay said the curse was scary at times due to how hard packed and fast it ran, saying she was gripping her sled hard the whole time.

"It was a fun course," MacKay said. "Winning isn't everything because it's all the people who are here who make it."

Andy Bartleet took the top prize for the Skijorer race with a time of 1 hour, 51 minutes, and 38 seconds.

All winners received trophies and a 28-pound bag of dog food courtesy of Midwestern Pet Foods, Inc.

The race was sponsored by the Sandwich Sidehillers with assistance from the Ossipee Valley Snowmobile Club. Most of the race was run on snowmobile trails going through private land. Dolan said landowners played an integral part in the race by giving permission to run across their land.

"Without landowners this would not be possible at all," Dolan said.

Dolan said another integral part of the race was the efforts by volunteers. Volunteers did everything from watch trail crossings to serve food at the Sidehiller Cafe

"Certainly one of the strongest parts about this race is all the volunteers," Dolan said. "It's a huge volunteer effort."

This was the first Sandwich race for many mushers, many taking part through word of mouth. Some were training for longer races.

Joseph Tolley of Hardwick, Mass., came in second in the 45-mile race and said he was nervous before the race about potential icy conditions. Some of the turns were faster due to the trail conditions and he said he crashed twice.

"It was a very fun race, I enjoyed it," Tolley said. "I will certainly be here next year."

This was also the first year for Ron Bates of Westfield, Mass., who has been racing for 25 years. Bates said the trail during the 20-mile race was "very nice."

"It was ground well; some of the turns were very sharp but overall very good," Bates said.

Kasey McCarty of New Portland, Maine, has been racing for around five years but said she has been running dogs since she was 10.

"Some friends told me it was a good thing to try out, a good one to prepare for the (Can-Am) 60," McCarty said.

McCarty ran the 45-mile course and said she found it challenging.

"The course is very technical, a lot of turns, icy in spots," said McCarty. "I would have liked it (better) if it had been a little more snow in areas."

Rob Cooke of Edmundston, New Brunswick, has been racing for 13 years, racing in the United Kingdom for seven years and in North America for five years. Cooke said he had previously entered the race on years when it was cancelled, but finally got the opportunity to take part in the Sandwich race this year.

Cooke said he was told this was a challenging course. After running the 45-mile race, he echoed that assessment.

"It's really interesting for driving a sled. It was probably one of the most difficult," Cooke said. "I think it keeps the dogs interested all the time."

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