FAIRBANKS - The 19th annual Midnight Sun Ultra Challenge for wheelchair and handcyclist racers got under way Saturday.
Handcyclist Kim Prussia is entering the 267-mile race from Fairbanks to Anchorage for the first time.
"The Alaska factor brought me," Prussia said with a laugh. "The distance almost kept me away."
Prussia was convinced to come to the Ultra Challenge, which began Saturday at 9 a.m., by three-time runner-up Sherry Ramsey. The two live and train in Colorado and Ramsey had to work at Prussia to join her.
"I'm a chicken. For three years I thought about it and this year Sherry kind of pushed me over the edge," Prussia said. "I figured, she could do it, why can't I?"
This year's racers are competing for a piece of the $22,500 purse. The race was founded by Don Brandon, a current Juneau resident who lived in Fairbanks when the race started.
Two-time champ Monica Bascio of Colorado signed up for the race in June after a year away from the Challenge.
One race change was instrumental in making it easier for Bascio to return this year.
"Staying at hotels," Bascio said. "When I did it, we stayed in motor homes. After a long day of racing that was tough."
"It's not the only reason I came, but I'm all for a hot shower and a bed."
For first-time wheelchair racer Paul Nunnari, the race is the culmination of a childhood dream. Two years after a car accident 19 years ago damaged his spinal cord, Nunnari read about the Challenge in "Sports and Spokes," a magazine about wheelchair racing, while at the hospital for rehab.
"It's such a unique race. It was something I read about and always put in the back of my mind that I wanted to do," Nunnari said.
Nunnari, an Australian who has raced professionally for more than a decade, was unable to make any previous Challenges due to other race commitments. But this year his schedule was just right.
Nunnari will be challenged by a field of five wheelchair racers including race veteran Yevgeniy Tetyukhin. The Challenge, which has a cap of 25 total racers, will have an all-time high 24 racers, according to race director Heather Plucinski.
Road construction will eliminate portions of the race on the Parks Highway. Stage two from Nenana to Healy also fell victim to road work.
To make up the lost ground, organizers added Saturday's 30-mile stage in Fairbanks.
Handcyclist Matt Updike of Golden, Colo., immediately noticed one bonus of the new stage.
"It's flatter," said Updike, the 2002 runner-up.
Despite the flat terrain, Updike won't be able to let up as part of a field of 16 men's handcyclists vying for a $10,000 top prize. The tough draw in the race to Anchorage includes two-time defending champion Alejandro Albor and fellow U.S. Olympic Team members Scott McNeice and Michel Bond.
"It's the longest handcycling race in the world and there is a real elite field here," said rookie Warren Strickland. "I wanted to participate against the best."
Strickland planned to race last year but felt he wasn't ready just yet. After a year of hard training, the Louisiana native is ready to test himself against six tough race stages and even tougher competition.
Albor, one racer who has nothing to prove, was humble when asked about his goals for the July 24 finish.
"I want to come and have fun and just do my best," Albor said. "If I do my best and win, that's great."
While Albor was humble, reluctant rookie Prussia joked about her Challenge aspirations.
"I want to try to hang with Sherry, finish respectfully and not die," Prussia said. "I don't want to die. Just have a good time."
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