KENAI -- Fifteen-thousand four-hundred miles. That's the distance Tim Osmar has traveled on the Iditarod Trail over the past 14 years.
This year's race, his 15th, will be a test for the Ninilchik musher. After his two worst finishes ever the past two years -- 17th in 1998 and 18th in 1999 -- Osmar said a third poor showing might force a change.
``I've had a couple bad years in a row, and if I have a third, it might be time to think about doing something else,'' he said. ``But the urge to win is still there. I still just want to do better.''
Osmar said frostbite, injuries, and his own questionable judgment at times contributed to his most recent losses.
``But I feel pretty good about my team this year,'' he said. ``They're a year older for one thing, and pretty strong. They're probably better than the last couple of years.''
Another reason for Osmar's optimism was his fifth place showing at the Kuskokwim 300 in January. He also only has one team in this year's Iditarod.
``Last year I had four teams,'' he said. ``I made pretty good money from that at least, but I spent a lot of it on dog food, so I didn't make a killing.''
Osmar leased three teams to other mushers last year.
During the 1998 race, Osmar said he was running well, about a half hour behind the leaders, but due to some bad decisions, he lost half his dog team halfway into the race.
``In the run to Cripple I hurt five of my dogs. I ran them too long in one stretch. And when they're tired, they have a better chance to be injured,'' he said.
Osmar said he then had to drop two more dogs at the next checkpoint because they were injured, too.
``They were probably hurt before, too, but I probably didn't want to admit that to myself,'' he said. ``So I went from 14 dogs to seven dogs in 24 hours.''
With only two more dogs in harness than the minimum allowable, Osmar said he had to run the rest of the race very carefully.
``Do I ever feel like `why am I out here?' No, but it does get pretty discouraging if you're somewhere in the middle and know you're in trouble,'' Osmar said. ``The Iditarod is a classic up-and-down deal. If you're running hard and the dogs are eating good, you're on the top of the world. But if you have to pack a dog (into the sled), you get pretty demoralized.''
Osmar started mushing the Iditarod in 1985, a year after his father, Dean, won the race and also a year after his third victory in the Junior Iditarod.
``All people talked about was my dad and how I should win too, which sounds good,'' he said. ``Maybe there was some pressure to win when I first started, but not so much now. Though I still want to win.''
Osmar's 14 years on the Iditarod Trail have been filled with more `ups' than `downs.' He broke into the top five six times, taking fourth in his second race in 1987, fourth again in 1990 and 1991, third -- his best finish yet -- in 1992, fifth in 1993, and fourth again in 1996.
During the 1990s, Osmar's career has paralleled another long time Iditarod veteran who has yet to be the first under the burled arch -- DeeDee Jonrowe.
``There were several years there that I wound up running with DeeDee, but not much in the last couple of years,'' Osmar said.
``I was starting to wonder about them,'' joked Osmar's wife, Tawny, last Saturday while their dogs were undergoing an official veterinary check.
He said he's commiserated with Jonrowe about their mutual situation.
``When you feel comfortable with other mushers and you're running in a group with them, you talk a lot,'' he said.
Osmar had 20 dogs at Dr. Barton Richards veterinary clinic in Soldotna. Two of those were from his father's kennel, and he plans to borrow two more dogs from Charlie Boulding of Manley. He'll have to select 16 dogs to run the race with.
``I like to keep a half-and-half balance of male-female on my team,'' Osmar said. ``Charlie's running a team of almost all males, and he says they're more aggressive. But it's been my experience that females finish the race more often.''
Keeping his team from being disrupted by newcomers is a concern for Osmar, but he said keeping foreign kennel mates running side-by-side and `buried' in the middle of the pack helps maintain harmony in the team.
``It's a gamble,'' he said. ``But gambles pay off sometimes.''
The gamble this year, as in others, is to justify the thousands of hours of training he puts in each year.
``A whole year of work comes down to that 10-day period,'' Osmar said. ``But my dogs are healthy and happy. And if I can keep my head screwed on straight, I can hold it together.''