Great Falls’ Brett Bruggeman claimed the first place title for the 300-mile Race to the Sky in Lincoln.
The musher crossed the finish line with 11 dogs at 6:02 a.m. Tuesday.
Twenty teams competed in this year’s races with two teams, including Bruggeman, headed to the Iditarod.
This year’s race was dedicated to Jack Beckstrom for his lifelong impact on dog mushing in Montana, according to Race to the Sky.
Race to the Sky is Montana’s premier winter sporting event and is recognized as one of the most challenging sled dog races in the world, according to the race’s website.
The races were organized first as Montana’s Governor’s Cup Sled Dog Race in 1986 and they ran the first 500 mile race in February of that year. Since that year, Race to the Sky has been an Iditarod qualifier.
(February 11, 2019) Spencer Bruggeman was born with a birth defect in his left leg that causes it to be both shorter and skinnier than his right leg. It takes him double the effort per step for him to walk or run.
Due to this, Spencer was unable to participate in traditional sports, which was sometimes hard coming from a family of football players.
Spencer said, “When I was growing up both of my brothers were big football players and my dad was in college and in high school.”
But one day, when Spencer was 10 years old, he was reading Jack London’s “Call of the Wild” and other famous sled dog books.
At the same time, his dad Brett was also reading books about the Yukon Gold Rush and how they used dogs to freight in supplies.
At the time, neither one knew they were reading similar books.
Brett recalled a conversation with his wife Suzette all those years ago, “I said to my wife, ‘You know, I’d really like to have a dog team.’ She said, ‘No, no, no, we’re at our pet limit and we’re not going to do that.’ So, I put it in the back of my mind.”
About one week later, Spencer and his mother were driving home from swim practice. Spencer recalled the conversation, “I randomly blurted out, ‘We should start a dog sled team.’ She pulled over and said, ‘Have you been talking to your dad?’ It turns he had been reading similar kinds of books.”
The rest is history. About one week later they had about 10 dogs and were on their first run.
At first Spencer said it was hard, “A lot of falling off cheap sleds with everyone’s reject dogs. It took us years until we were equipped to run actual races and do actual long distances. You got to learn everything as you go.”
Now, they have a total 36 sled dogs. Both Spencer and Brett do about three mid-distance races per year, which can be anywhere from 200 to 350 miles.
Brett said, “There’s not a lot of races around here, so it’s a lot of training for so few of races, but you got to love the training too.”
To train the dogs, when it gets cool enough, they first will hook the dogs up to four-wheelers and have them run around their property for a few hours.
Brett and Spencer will also spend weekends in the Little Belt Mountains or go to Lincoln, Montana. They spend the day running the dogs 40-50 miles, then camp out and do it again the next day.
Spencer said, “A dog will never let you down. It’s like a player and a coach but also a player and player. You trust them, you trust them to get you through the race, but you also have to trust them to obey you and to believe you.”
Brett added, “When you start off and hook the dogs up to the sled they just go crazy, you can tell they were born to run for sure.”
According to Spencer, there could be anywhere from 8-14 dogs on a sled, depending on the type and distance of the race.
The first weekend in February, both Brett and Spencer completed in the Idaho Sled Dog Challenge race. Brett came in first place.
The second weekend in February, they both planned on doing Montana’s Race to the Sky in Lincoln, Montana. Spencer was ill and could not compete. Brett still participated in the race.
The anticipation is building for the biggest race of them all, the Iditarod.
In March, Brett will compete in his second year in the Iditarod, a 1000-mile sled dog race that takes place in Alaska.
It starts in Anchorage and ends in Nome. Brett said, “Once you leave Anchorage, you’re on your own and you can’t have any outside help and that’s kind of a test of man and beast. It’s pretty daunting for sure and it got under my skin and that’s why I’m going back.”
Right now at 17 years old, Spencer is too young to qualify for the Iditarod. The plan is to one day make it there, but with college approaching in the fall, he plans on taking a break from racing.
From a football family to now a sled dog family. Spencer said, “It used to affect me a lot. But at this point it doesn’t matter. I have something that I think is a lot cooler.”