FAIRBANKS — The big three of sprint sled dog racing in Alaska are at the top of the heap after the first day of the GCI Open North American Championship sled dog race Friday in downtown Fairbanks.
Only 30 seconds separate Willow’s Egil Ellis, Salcha’s Arleigh Reynolds and Ken Chezik of Fife Lake, Mich., after the first day of the 67th annual running of the fastest Open class sprint mushing race in the world.
With temperatures in the low teens,
11-time champion Ellis charged around the 20-mile with a team of 13 dogs in 63 minutes, 46.5 seconds.
Reynolds is less than 20 seconds behind Ellis after posting a time of 64:05.7, while Chezik crossed the line in 64:16.7.
Ells was the first of the three teams to leave the starting line, heading in the 10th position. Reynolds started 14th and Chezik was 16th among the 19 mushers in the three-day race. Teams start at two-minute intervals.
“I was hearing some amazing times on the radio about how fast their teams were going through checkpoints and I thought this team can’t do that much than we’re already doing,” Ellis said.
Ellis, whose teams are known for strong finishes, said some of the checkpoint times had him between and minute and a minute-and-half behind Reynolds and Chezik.
“After the golf course, I decided not to listen to the radio and just run my own race,” he said.
Running his own race put Ellis in the No. 1 position for today’s second heat, which is another 20-mile run on the same trail.
Sunday’s final heat is 27.6 miles and a reverse order start will be used with the slowest teams going out first and the fastest teams leaving Second Avenue last.
Racing begins at 1 p.m. each day on Second Avenue in downtown Fairbanks.
Ellis said he left one dog out of his team Friday because it showed signs of having a sore back.
“I didn’t want to take a chance that I’d have to haul a dog, so now I’m the only one in the team with a sore back,” Ellis said as he stretched his back near his truck after the race. “I might be eating a lot of Tiger Balm tonight.”
Reynolds said the times for Chezik and himself might have been a little compared to the readings he was getting on his own watch.
“It doesn’t really matter because the main thing is that all three of us had good runs,” the Salcha veterinarian said. “The key is to stay within striking distance for Sunday’s final heat.”
Reynolds doesn’t mind leaving the starting line second this afternoon.
“I think it’s great,” Reynolds said. “It means Egil won’t be chasing me.”
Reynolds said he expects the trail to be much faster for today’s second heat.
“It was pretty soft in the middle today, but with all the traffic it got and the cold temperatures Friday night, it should set up well,” he said. “It wasn’t a track record trail today (Friday).”
Chezik, who won the Fur Rendezvous World Championship Sled Dog Race last month in Anchorage, is happy with his first heat performance.
“All went excellent today,” he said. “The last few years the three of us have been bucking heads, so I think I’m in good shape.”
Guy Girard of Saint-Thomas, Joliette, Quebec, holds down the fourth spot in 65:57.0 and Greg Taylor of Fairbanks is fifth in 66:04.3.
“I had a pretty clean run, but I had to load a dog at about 9 miles and that played havoc with my steering,” Taylor said. “I could have been up there If I didn’t have to carry that dog.”
Contact the News-Miner sports department at 459-7581.