Newest Willow sled-dog race a labor of love

Wade Marrs pulling into Galena during the 2016 Iditarod. Marrs is one of the organizers of the new Willow 300 dog sled race. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media)

A new sled-dog race kicks off Friday (Feb. 3). At noon, mushers will take off from Willow Lake as part of Southcentral Alaska’s latest mid-distance race, the Willow 300.

The event was put together by a young couple with support from the Willow Dog Mushers Association. 26 year old Wade Marrs, who placed 4th in last year’s Iditarod, is the race marshal, and Sophie DeBruin helped organize logistics.

Though in its inaugural run, the race boasts an impressive roster of more than 30 teams, some of them from the top echelons of mushing. DeBruin thinks part of the reason is the substantial $15,000 purse.

“For mushers who do this day in and day out, this is their life,” DeBruin said by phone. “Offering a purse for their hard work is something that we believe that they need to have.”

The Willow 300 is one of the only races with a mass start — where teams depart in a broad horizontal scramble simultaneously.

The packed roster is even more impressive given the timing right between other prominent races. The Willow 300 falls on the same weekend as the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest leaves from White Horse. And the last week saw both the Tustumena 200 on the Kenai Peninsula and the Northern Lights 300 out of Big Lake.

DeBruin thinks the broad interest comes partly from an appetite among mushers for mid-distance races along the road system that count as qualifiers for the Iditarod. Atop of that is Willow’s reputation as a bastion of mushing support and excellent winter conditions that have dumped snow on the area in recent weeks.

DeBruin said success will be the absence of any major catastrophes.

“We know that being a first year race that everything isn’t going to go according to plan, and we’re prepped for pretty much anything that’s going to happen,” DeBruin said. “I think just having dog teams finish happy — healthy dog teams — is what’s going to constitute a great race.”

The race route will take mushers past the Knik Bar, Yenta Station, Deshka Landing and Sheep Creek before returning to Willow Lake on Sunday.