There is nothing worse for a dog race fan than to have a long race decided early. The unusual experience of watching an event unfold from afar for eight or nine days, non-stop, and at a very slow pace creates a level of suspense or drama that is best served by a close finish, hopefully involving a team or two among the favorites of the fan doing the watching. There is not likely to be a close finish in this year’s Iditarod. Dallas Seavey was described as the team to beat a couple of days ago here, and that has now become ever more clear as he has seriously out gunned his closest competition in the last two days. He set off from Koyuk this evening with more than an hour lead, and ample speed to stretch that lead.
It is a dog race, and there are numerous things that could yet go wrong, but it would take a major turn of events for Dallas to finish any place but first. This comes from a guy who called last year’s race for Jeff King hours before he withdrew from the race. But King encountered weather that is not likely to repeat itself, in fact there is a forecast of nice weather all the way to Nome. Dallas is in line to win his third race and establish himself as the team to beat for years to come.
Some race fans will not be happy with that result. There are many reasons to cheer for a certain team or teams, and I thought it would be helpful to explain how I pick a team to pull for in the Iditarod. Its fairly complicated. First, I like to pull for the underdog, and that usually means someone who has not won the race before. It is likely better for the race, and for the sport, to have a new face emerge as winner as often as possible. Second I like to cheer for rural Alaskan teams, because of a common bond rural people share. There are only a few rural teams, so that narrows things a bit. I also like to cheer for teams that have a history with the Kuskokwim 300, our home town race and one which has been my favorite since I helped start it in 1980. The rural racers tend to all have a K300 history, so that part is easy, but I also tend to favor those racers from outside rural Alaska who take part in the K300 and speak well of our race wherever they go. Finally I naturally favor our local racers, and that definition includes anyone from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
That list resulted in a handful of favorites, none of which are going to win. The one with the best chance, Aaron Burmeister, looks to fall just a bit short, likely in the top five for sure. Another with a good chance, Pete Kaiser, is driving a nice bunch of dogs, good enough to win the Kuskokwim 300 this year, but in his view not seasoned enough to compete at the end of the Iditarod just yet. He is now battling to make the top ten. Other favorites like Richie Diehl and John Baker are a bit further back but still in line to get a pay check, while Katherine Keith and Chuck Schaeffer are in the middle of the pack. One more personal favorite Paul Gebhardt, will not win, but has come on strong in the last two days, and is now gunning for a top ten finish as well. I cheer for Paul because of his long history with the K300, and the fact that he is from Minnesota. He always claims the K300 is his favorite race, and has now become a fishing buddy.
Distant readers may not be aware of the fact that most teams in the Iditarod enter without any realistic chance of winning, in fact most who start know they are not likely to finish in the money (Top 30). But still they take part, training all winter, feeding and equipping a team, paying a huge entry fee and considerable freight expenses to be on the trail on many days that can be described as uncomfortable at best. Throw in lack of sleep and physical exertion and a reader might start to question why folks take part. To fully understand that you would have to experience the sight of Nome, Alaska, at night, 10 miles ahead as you top a rise and realize that after a thousand mile struggle across Alaska the end is actually in sight.
I can now name my top three for the 2015 Iditarod, subject to change as always.
Aaron Burmeister, Aliy Zirkle and Dallas Seavey appear to have the best positions right now, and of those three, Dallas appears to have an edge. That edge is based on greater speed, but speed does not always prevail in the Iditarod. Aaron and Aliy have shown the ability to stay on the trail for long stretches, while Dallas has preferred shorter runs with more frequent stops. That strategy tends to keep a team’s speed up, while the long run strategy slows a team down a bit. But when the end is near, most of the contending teams cut their rests and stay on the trail longer. Sometimes that has the effect of slowing the faster team dramatically, once they have become accustomed to the more frequent rests. If that were to happen here, any of the top three could win. If the speeds remain constant, Dallas could win handily, as he is traveling about a mile an hour faster than the others.
Jeff King and Mitch Seavey have faltered a bit, and thus don’t make the cut for top three at this time. Both had what seemed to be un-planned stops today in the long run from Kaltag to Unalakleet. The gang of three coming up from behind, Jesse Royer, Joar Ulsom and Pete Kaiser are well positioned to pass any of the top five who falter, and these two veterans appear to be well within reach at this time.
The cold weather is getting a lot of attention. Many are suggesting it has been the coldest Iditarod ever. If so, it has surpassed some awfully cold years. The pictures of racers show a lot of weariness, and not an abundance of smiles when teams reach a checkpoint. Now the weather is warming up, but with high winds. It was gusting to 40 in Unalakleet today, and the next stretch of trail is very difficult to cover in high winds. The race is far from over.
Shameless plugs for a dog race seem to appropriate for a dog race commentator, so here goes. Aaron Burmeister was the successful bidder on an auction item at the Kuskokwim 300 race banquet this year, winning a big batch of home made burritos donated by Ben Kuntz and Sarah Angstman (Iditarod Musher Special- Shrink Wrapped of course). He packed them as his trail food, and soon after arriving in Unalakleet first today, he announced the burritos were great, and it was all he was eating thus far. Next year the bid will start higher.
I promised a top three by tonight, but can’t deliver on my promise. The combination of a variety of rest-run cycles, and some speed issues showing up make it impossible to say who the top three are right now (Sat eve). Jeff King seems to have the edge overall, although he currently is running in second place. Aaron Burmeister has the lead but still must take an 8 hour layover in Kaltag, where that lead will likely disappear. King will likely stop 5-6 hour there and head for Unalakleet, probably a non-stop run.
King has taken three long runs since his 24 hour in Galena, and they have not required long stops when he rested at Huslia and Koyukuk. Others have had less of a pattern, and are harder to predict as a result. Aliy Zirkle still has to finish her 8 hour, and she is currently in third. She and Burmeister not only have to contend with finishing their 8 hour rest, they also have the slowest average moving speed among the contenders. It is hard to make a team go faster than they are used to traveling for any great period of time. Thus, those two teams would have to stay on the trail longer than their competition to win.
Dallas Seavey has been lurking just behind the leaders, and traveling a bit faster when he moves. He is defending champion and will be in this race until the finish. He is a bit further back than he would like to be at this stage, but traveling faster as he is, he will likely be well in the mix on the coast. Mitch Seavey has a little less speed and is further back, but don’t count him out just yet.
[UPDATE]Dallas has turned it up a notch on his last run, and in so doing emerges as the team to beat. He averaged about 10 mph coming into Nulato. With that kind of speed still available at this stage of the race, the defending champion has to be favored to repeat.
A surprising name has moved into the discussion in the last two days. Jessie Royer had a blazing fast run from Galena to Huslia and is still moving well, running just ahead of Dallas Seavey right now. She has the highest average moving speed of all the front runners, a full half mile an hour faster than Dallas, and a full mile per hour faster than Aaron. Two others just behind with high speeds are Pete Kaiser and Joar Ulsom. These teams with high speed coming up from behind have excellent prospects for moving higher.
Among the other rural teams, John Baker has continued a slow but steady climb, now running in 13th place. John has often moved up late in races, and especially in those races where weather is a factor. His Kotzebue training comes in handy when it’s cold. Another team moving up is Thomas Waerner, from Norway. The Norway teams that have done well in previous races have done so with slower moving teams that stay on the trail long hours. He seem to be following that trend.
The cold weather that has dominated the race seems to be waning which must be appealing to the racers. One thing that racers rarely do is complain about the weather, because they have long ago realized it makes little sense to do so. An occasional glimpse into life on the trail at -40 tells us all we need to know. Several mushers have frostbite, and some have mentioned the tough time getting any rest during trail stops. Huslia is known as a very cold village, and it surely didn’t disappoint this year. It is believed that the temps hit -50 in certain locations along the rivers. Dog racers are well familiar with the feeling of dropping off a bank onto a river and having the temp drop several degrees in about 10 feet. When it is 40 below in the checkpoint, that sudden drop is alarming, when you consider you are starting on a several hour river run. Now that I no longer face that situation as a mostly retired racer, I wonder “what was I thinking ?”
Jeff King’s move through Ruby on his way to a 24 hour rest at Galena has put him in a good position in Huslia, the halfway point of the race. King picked up time on all other teams at Ruby because they all stoppped, then he got to Galena first and watched a number of teams go by on their way to a 24 hour break in Huslia. Those teams found some soft trail which slowed their progress. Today when King made the run the trail was frozen and much faster. This allowed him to pickup more time on the first teams to Huslia.
This gives King an edge for now. His main competition comes from Aaron Burmeister, the two Seavey teams and Aily Zirkle. Teams further back like Pete Kaiser are moving fast, but will have to shave a bunch of time somewhere. John Baker is making a steady move and can’t be overlooked.
I suggested I would have a top three tonight but that will have to wait another day.
Its time to take a look at our rural racers, as the race approaches half way. I will take them mainly in the order they appear, starting with Aaron Burmeister. Rural you say? Of course he is. He spends a good share of his year in Nome and Kotzebue, he grew up in Nome, and he spends the rest of his time in Nenana, which is semi-rural.
Aaron is currently in front of the pack, and is making a strong move toward Huslia. I won’t call him the leader because I think Jeff King is right now, taking his 24 hour break in Galena. But Aaron is right up there, and has had good moving speeds throughout the race. He says things have not gone all that smoothly so far, yet there he is in front, so keep an eye on Aaron.
Next in line is Pete Kaiser, stopped in Galena apparently for his 24 hour. He will leave there well behind King, around 7 hours. That’s a lot of time to make up on a 4 time champion, but Pete had a real fast run into that checkpoint. Actually the fastest run into Galena was Paul Gebhardt and Pete was second fastest. I suspect part of that was a factor of the trail setting up after several teams went over it, and also the fact that those teams had a little extra rest from some of the teams that preceded them
Richie Diehl has quietly hung around the leaders and is about 3 hours behind Pete. He must still take both mandatory rests, and has been moving slower recently, but those rests could bring him back up a bit.
Katherine Keith is also in Galena, arriving five hours after Richie and moving a bit slower than him. She has taken her 8 hour break, and still must do her 24. She passed up her kennel partner John Baker who appears to be taking his 24 hour rest back in Ruby. John has had some good runs, and his history of moving up strongly in the latter part of the race might serve him well, especially if he has a hard fast trail out of Ruby from all the traffic ahead of him.
Our final rural team is Chuck Schaeffer who is on his way from Ruby to Galena having completed his 8 hour rest. Chuck is the lone rookie among the rural bunch, and he is the fourth ranked rookie right now.
Tomorrow night I will take a stab at naming the top three contenders, based not only on their position but also their speed and other secret factors.
Usually by this stage of the Iditarod some trends have developed which would enable a seasoned analyst to pick out some early leaders. Not this year. A jammed pack of racers toward the front makes picking the leaders tough, and that is made worse by the fact that some faster moving teams are a bit back of the leaders by still well within range.
The Seaveys are in front as of this writing, but neither has taken control of the race. In fact the next racer in line Aaron Burmeister has a higher average traveling speed, which means he has gotten to the same spot in the race as the Seaveys with more rest. Several other teams are showing faster traveling speeds today, among them are Jeff King, Thomas Waerner, Pete Kaiser, Dee Jonrowe, Nathan Schroeder and Ken Anderson.
Complicating any prognostication at this point is the staggered start and various mandatory rests which must be taken. Until those rests are completed, comparisons of location are deceptive. For example Pete Kaiser started late in the field and has about a two hour handicap over early starters which will be given back to him during his 24 hour layover.
Today the GPS tracker went on the blink for a couple of hours, introducing recent Iditarod fans to the situation faced by fans in the early years of the race when reports were often very old by the time they reached rural Alaska. I used to call Iditarod headquarters for first hand updates, but they were sometimes outdated as well. Later I learned to tell them I was from the press, so that I would get the best information possible. I would say “This is Randall Simpson from the New York Times”, and that would usually get me the supervisor. Later on when the fax was introduced, I got on the every hour fax list from headquarters, and then all of the best race fans in Bethel would call me for an update. Of course the tracker has changed all of that, and going two hours without an update is a weird form of torture for the hard core fan.
The Brent Sass disqualification is major news and not just because it removes a serious contender from the race. A larger issue is why Iditarod has such a rule in the first place.
Two way electronic communication is not allowed on the race. The discussion concerns whether such communication gives an advantage to some racers who receive such information. Not having raced in the cell phone era I can only speculate but I assume some small advantage can be gained when cell phone service is available. That of course is only part of the time usually near villages. A racer could learn what the competition is doing and also weather or trail information.
Reliable sources have told me that a significant number of racers used cellphones in recent years even though they were banned. They did so without penalty apparently. This year the race officials announced they would harshly enforce the rule and Sass is the first victim. There are likely other devices on the trail but Sass used his openly as a music device forgetting that it was capable of texting with Wi-Fi in the checkpoint if such was available. One of the problems with this rule is the issue of detection. Cell phones could be buried deeply in a musher’s equipment and hard to detect. I suspect some racers are reconsidering their use of cell phones today.
Iditarod should use this opportunity to revisit the rule. Cell phones are everywhere and what is the harm in allowing racers to carry them? Keeping them charged must be a problem as well as finding a signal but racers use other modern methods to do better in the race. Improved sleds, clothing, dog gear, food, GPS trackers, all of these would have given pause to old time racers but each improvement was readily embraced by the racers.
No one likes to see a good racer sent home in mid race. With a huge mob of supporters in the Fairbanks area one can only imagine the anguish Sass fans share today. He recently raced in the Kuskokwim 300 and made lots of fans in the Bethel area as well. Incidentally that race allows cell phones and no one has suggested it has impacted competition.
Meanwhile a closely stacked field is making its way down the Yukon River. More on that aspect of the race later.