Copper Basin 300 heads into stretch run

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FINISH TODAY: Four mushers have separated themselves from the pack.As a clear, calm evening of sub-zero temperatures settled over Copper Basin on Sunday, a passel of top mushers were sorting themselves out as perhaps the most competitive Copper Basin 300 in history headed into its stretch run.

The race leaders were four-time defending Iditarod champion Lance Mackey of Fairbanks, Gerry Willomitzer of Whitehorse, Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers and Jake Berkowitz of Chugiak.

All four were out of the Tolsona Lodge within 90 minutes of each other late Sunday afternoon, fresh off an eight-hour rest. Expect them to blow past another group of mushers parked at the next checkpoint, Wolverine Lodge, who were just starting their eight-hour layovers.

Mackey, the kingpin of distance mushing, is no surprise. Nor is Zirkle, a former Yukon Quest champion. Willomitzer has been in the top 30 in all four of his Iditarods, with a best of 13th last year.

But the first musher out of Tolsona was, to some, a shocker.

Berkowitz is a 24-year-old who was raised in St. Paul, Minn., and moved to Alaska in 2005 to work in the kennel of Iditarod veteran Ed Stielstra, where he nurtured his mushing dream.

“It was one of those childhood dreams, like being a fireman or cowboy,” he told the Iditarod Trail Committee website. “I just never thought it would happen.”

After moving to Alaska, Berkowitz became a handler for veteran Anchorage musher Robert Bundtzen, who was also running a strong Copper Basin race on Sunday, and Zack Steer of Sheep Mountain.

His ascent up the learning curve was both steep and fast.

After starting his Iditarod career with a 65th place finish in 2008 he jumped up to 31st a year later.

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Now he’s dueling one of the greatest mushers in history of the sport, leaving Tolsona at 3:22 p.m. — well rested and 67 minutes ahead of Mackey.

As always in mushing, the biggest part of the reason is his dogs.

“He purchased all of Jon Little’s dogs and that’s a proven dog team,” four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser said by phone on Sunday. “Even though Jon only had a small kennel, he had really good dogs.”

Little, the fourth-place finisher in the 2002, recently moved out of Alaska and sold off most of his animals.

Even before the purchase, though, Berkowitz could see his team jelling.

“The dogs are entering their prime now,” he told the website Forward.com in 2009. “They’re going to be a very scary team to race next year.”

By 6 p.m. Sunday, Berkowitz was in and out of the next checkpoint, Wolverine Lodge, beginning his run over the final 110 trail miles to the finish line. All 12 of the dogs he started with nearly 200 miles earlier remained in harness.

That’s not unusual for Berkowitz, who finished his 2009 Iditarod with all 16 starters in harness after 1,000 tough trail miles.

“It was pretty incredible,” Berkowitz told Forward.com afterward. “I’ve been told that’s only the fourth time (that’s happened) in the history of the race.”

But this year, Berkowitz is focused on the middle-distance races. He’s entered in the Jan. 21 Kuskokwim 300, the world’s richest middle-distance race, but is not on the roster for either the Iditarod nor the Yukon Quest.

Expect the Copper Basin 300 to end sometime this afternoon.

Source: The Anchorage Daily News

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