LINCOLN – Try as she might, Jessie Royer didn’t let at least one record slip away.
She still holds the title of youngest musher to win a featured race at the Race to the Sky – by five months.
Royer was 17 in 1994 when she won Montana’s premier dog sled race.
On Tuesday, in the fastest 350-miler yet, she pulled her team aside with the finish line all but in sight to let another 17-year-old, Alea Robinson of Eagle River, Alaska, take top prize.
“Alea turns 18 in April. I turned 18 (in 1994) in September, so she didn’t get me there,” said Royer, now 36, who trains and runs tours at a guest ranch near Darby. “I told her that’s just the luck of the draw.”
Robinson crossed under the Arch at Hi-Country Snack Foods at 9:51 a.m., the first morning finish since the Race to the Sky went to a 350-mile format. Even more impressive, the race started two hours later on Sunday than in past years.
Royer was literally on Robinson’s heels and received an official finish time of 9:51 a.m. plus 30 seconds.
“It was more like five seconds,” noted Robinson, who received a waiver from race officials to compete in the long race that’s designed for mushers 18 years and older.
Race officials estimated Robinson’s share of the $10,000 purse at $3,500. Royer will receive roughly $2,500 for second place.
Returning champion Warren Palfrey of Quesnel, British Columbia, finished third at 12:22 p.m., more than two hours earlier than his winning finish over the same course in 2012. Ten of the 24 dogs run by Robinson and Royer were leased from Palfrey as Royer assembles her optimum 15-animal team for the Iditarod in Alaska next month.
Gerry Walker of Pierceland, Saskatchewan, passed Laura Daugereau in the race’s last leg on Huckleberry Pass to finish fourth at 1:03 p.m.
Daugereau, who trains in Stockett and lives the other six months of the year in Port Gamble, Wash., crossed at 1:19 to take fifth, after back-to-back second-place showings in 2011 and 2012.
Josi Thyr of Cataldo, Idaho, a rookie at the Race to the Sky, was sixth across the line at 4:05 p.m.
All 10 starters were expected to finish the race by midnight or shortly thereafter. Pam Beckstrom, race secretary, said it was one of the few, if not only, Race to the Sky that had no attrition. All six starters of the Adult and Junior 100 races from Lincoln to Seeley Lake finished Monday.
Racing started Sunday afternoon in Lincoln after a week of consternation about a lack of snow in the area. A Saturday night storm helped alleviate those concerns, and the mushers gave thumbs-up to the volunteer trail groomers.
“Hard, fast trail and pretty ideal weather,” said Palfrey, who ran a younger team than last year and one more geared for stage races.
“I don’t think you can get any better trails,” agreed Royer.
Royer grew up on a cattle and horse ranch in Philipsburg and didn’t enter the world of dog sleds until she was a teenager. She won her first big race at Race to the Sky behind a team owned and trained by Doug Swingley of Simms, who was on his way to four Iditarod titles.
Swingley, now of Lincoln, was at the finish line Tuesday and he paid tribute to the accomplishment of his former protégé, who has three top-three finishes at the Iditarod on her record and is looking for more. Neither he nor Palfrey know Robinson well, but the veterans weren’t surprised by her victory.
Neither was Royer, who was looking for someone to run a second 12-dog team for her. She had no qualms about choosing Robinson.
“Alea’s been helping me (in Alaska) since she was 6 years old,” Royer said.
Robinson was in Montana for the Junior Race to the Sky last year, finishing second. She’s been mushing since she was 3 years old, when her family hosted three mushers for the Kusko 300 in Bethel, Alaska.
Robinson flies home Thursday for the Junior Iditarod outside of Anchorage on Feb. 23-24.
Royer said she was lucky Robinson could fit this race in. A senior in high school, Robinson takes courses at Alaska Pacific University. She just returned home from 2 1/2 weeks of volunteer work in Malawi before flying to Montana last Thursday.
Robinson finished Tuesday with all 12 dogs, the only musher in the 350-miler to do so. Winning wasn’t necessarily what she was after, though she and Royer ran at the front the entire race. It was her first 350-miler.
“I was here just to have a good time and finish,” said Robinson.