At the height of winter, Wyoming has gone to the dogs

It's the furry athletes who matter in mushing - making it one sportwhere more and more women and teens are competing with the big boys.

Clasping steaming cups of coffee, hundreds of bundled-up spectators in Jackson cheered this weekend as the International Rocky Mountain Stage-Stop Sled Dog Race, the largest such race in the Lower 48, got off to a brisk start under azure skies and subzero temperatures.

For the next 10 days, 28 dog sled teams will race 450 miles through the Wyoming wilderness, as rookie mushers race alongside Iditarod champions for the $20,000 first prize.

What sets sled-dog racing apart - besides the sometimes grueling conditions - is that this is one sport where the human athlete is secondary. In dog racing, the old saying is, "You're only as fast as your slowest dog." How much a human can bench press is rather beside the point.

"Women can compete equally with the men, because the dogs are the athletes and women are better caregivers to the dogs," says Alaskan musher Susan Whiton, who is running her dogs in the Stage Stop race.

That's one reason mushing is drawing greater numbers of women and young people. The sport began opening up for women in the 1980s, with the first female Iditarod champions. Libby Riddles, the first woman to win the Iditarod in 1985, says all that's required to be a good dog musher is "organization and hard work."

Taking care of the dogs is the key to being a successful musher, three-time Iditarod champ Jeff King agrees. "All I'm good at is knowing how to motivate and inspire my dogs." In fact, one of the fastest mushing dogs in the world is tiny, 38 pound Jenna, Mr. King's lead dog, who brought his team to victory in last year's Iditarod.

What has captured Americans' imagination since Jack London first immortalized sled dogs is mushing's mix of folklore, furry athletes, and a love of the outdoors. There has been a 29 percent increase in the number of dog mushers between 1992 and 1996, according to Mushing Magazine. Last year, there were 268 dog sled racing events in the United States.

A messier variation, mud-mushing, is even growing in countries with no snow, says Enrico Sassi, a Mushing editor.

What sets the Wyoming race apart is its gentler - some would say, saner - approach to long-distance dog-sled racing. Unlike the endurance required in the nonstop 1,049 mile Alaskan Iditarod, where mushers snatch a few hours sleep on the course, the Stage Stop competitors race 30 to 60 miles each day, stopping every evening in 14 different mountain towns.

Competition is fierce during the race, as sleds knife through the snowy mountains. But off the trail the atmosphere is warm and cordial. Many of the spectators here in Jackson who don't have a spouse have a dog instead.

Before the race, mushers chat with each other and with visitors, enjoying the camaraderie and posing for photos with their dog teams.

Some mushers wear well-worn Carhartt overalls, scrape together their $1,000 race fee, use volunteers as their assistants, and drive humble trucks sporting homemade dog kennels; while corporate-sponsored veterans show up in $40,000 trucks matching their fur-trimmed jumpsuits. The doors of King's dog kennel spell out "K-I-N-G."

Regardless of the trimmings, what mushers share is an absolute devotion to the sport. Teen Amanda Yust, the youngest competitor in the Stage Stop race, puts all the months' of training and subzero temperatures in perspective. "I'd rather do this ... than anything else."

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