Down the stretch they come!

By ANNE KAZMIERCZAK
Register Reporter

Like any athlete looking to a big event, participants in Allen County Fair’s fabled dryland turtle race begin preparing months in advance.
However, you won’t find them running treadmills or climbing stairs. Instead these exuberant racers are off to the fields, in search of dryland turtles.
The predominant species in the race was Kansas’ own state reptile, the ornate box turtle. One wood turtle, more properly called a three-toed box turtle, also was an entrant.
Becky Robb, supervisor of the baby barn, said her family starts gathering all the turtles they find “about April, and we keep them for this because a lot of kids can’t find turtles and this way they get to take part in the fun.”
Fun it was. Adults and youngsters alike smiled and cheered as the ready racers scuttled from their starting pen onto blazing hot as-phalt.
The heat was a concern to fair board member Johnny Womack, who got down on the surface to see just how hot it was.
“Then I realized turtles live on hot sand and rocks, so I figured it was okay,” he said.
Indeed, the impetus to move for these local reptiles may have been the similarity in surface to all those roads that turtles cross. Roadways, it turns out, were the most common spot for turtle hunters to find their prey. The other spot was neighborhood fields.
Five-year-old Brett Willis said, “I found one on the road and one on the farm on the rocks.” He brought one turtle with him to the race, “but the other one crawled on the grass fast.”
His dad, Dan, said they had to do some online research to learn what to feed the turtles.
They learned they like vegetation and insects. “We’ve been feeding him strawberries,” Brett said.
The Willises also learned how to sex the turtles: males have red eyes, while females eyes are dark.
Brennen Nuessen’s turtle likes peppers and bananas, he said. He also got a Pop-Tart before the race. But “we didn’t train him or anything like that,” Brennen said.
Brennen’s family has been participating in turtle races “since we were kids,” his uncle, Michael Clark, said.
Brennen’s mom, Brandi Grisier, was more specific. “We started when I was four. I’m 24 now,” she said.
When Clark outgrew racing, he began volunteering at the fair.
Katie Robb also is a turtle race volunteer. She said people have their own superstitions about which turtles move fastest.
“Some people like smaller turtles because they think they go faster,” she said. “We’ve had them enter a baby that was the size of a quarter.”
The race, sponsored by Mid-West Fertilizer, gave cash awards for the top three placers in three age classes, and a medal to the overall champion box turtle.
Dillon Slaven won first in the one- to six-year-old category, Colton Eck in the seven- to 10-year-old category and Kolbyn Allen took first among 11- to 14-year-olds.
Colton ECU’s turtle was the grand champion.