Friday, March 14, 2014

Team Baker is Off the Trail

Katherine Keith finished today in 32nd place, a little more than an hour out of the money.  She was fifth ranking rookie.  She picked quite a year for her first Iditarod.

Long time race observers rate this year’s trail among the worst.  There are many years that have had issues, but this year there were  perhaps more than I have ever heard about.   Ice, dirt, tundra, wind and even a little cold weather thrown in.    The happy faces and easy going demeanor observed  in Anchorage and  Willow were gone,  far gone, by the time the teams reached  Nikolai.  There was a stretch of normal trail then before it turned into a mess again on the coast.  One thought comes back to me that has been repeated many times when Iditarod racers gather.  Sometimes on the trail I said to myself “ Do they really expect me to  go there?”   Others admit they said the same thing, more than once.  But that is part of the attraction. The comforts of home  just don’t excite  everyone. They need to get out and feel the wind in their face, and face  a challenge. 

The folks who made it have quite the story to tell, and I’m anxious for a chance to hear it from folks in the middle and back of the pack, folks  doing it for the first time.  Part of the enjoyment for fans like me is hearing how difficult it was,  and marveling how  they did it.

For all the folks who don’t understand the race, and and are critical of it, there are few who would  deny that there is no event quite like it.   It’s the Super Bowl of  Alaska, only bigger.

I have enjoyed once again adding my thoughts to dozens of voices who do daily commentary on the race.  I congratulate all of the racers and the folks who put on the race.  If the trails are good,  I hope to be doing this again next year.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

John Finishes 19th

John Baker  ended  his Iditarod in 19th place, and the pictures suggested was on the trail  for a few days.  The brutal winds of the past couple days took a toll on  most of the racers.   Some  were hard to recognize in their finish line photos.  I haven’t had a chance to  talk with him, but I suspect 19th is  little behind where he hoped to finish  at the start.

 Throughout  the race  Baker’s traveling speed was a notch  slow to contend for the top spot.  He has always had a bit slower pace than some, but the gap was more pronounced this year.   Perhaps the  hard fast trail had something to do with that.  Baker often shines best on softy trails with hard pulling.

 In addition to not  finishing near the top,  Baker lost his record for fastest Iditarod.  That was a record that was likely to fall, as will this year’s record now held by Dallas Seavey.

Katherine Keith  is at White Mountain in 30th place, the last paying position.  There are a number of teams in who will leave just ahead of her, so she has  some chance to gain a place or two.  She would be happy with 30th I’m sure.

 Tales of the tough trail are  now emerging.  Martin Buser’s  account of the last two days is brutal, as is Jeff King’s account of his problems around Safety.  Less well known racers likely have similar stories we haven’t heard.  It is clear that survival was  at least  a part of the equation during the worst of the wind.  The Iditarod has never cost anyone their life, but  a few  racers have wondered if their affairs were in order during  some bad storms.

 Tomorrow’s report will conclude this year’s  reports.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Late Night Drama

The late night drama  Monday not only kept me and other fans up, it also prevented a morning report.  What a finish.  Things went south in a hurry  for  Jeff  King, who I  had named the winner about 9 pm.    By  11:00 he was  out of the race.  My report, which was compared to the Dewey beats Truman headline from 1948, was a little early but seemed safe at the time.  Someone asked for a retraction.  Of course not, this is meant to be one old guy’s thoughts and nothing more.   But  refunds will be paid, of course.  Anyone that can prove they bet on King after 9  based on my report will get their money back, simply by sending me the receipt.

It is obvious that many in Alaska wanted  Aliy Zirkle to pull it out, and thought she had after reaching safety first. Instead she settled for her third straight second place finish, and  an elite record held by only one other person.  Zirkle and Rick Swenson are the only racers ever to finish second in  the Iditarod when leading at Safety.  Of course, for Swenson it was the  1978 one second loss to Dick  Mackey that earned his spot on that list.

Dallas  Seavey earned his second win, and third in a row for his family.  Some call it a dynasty but it is not quite there yet, especially considering the circumstances of this win.    The big blow of 2014 determined the winner.  Dallas survived it, but could hardly claim he dominated the race.  King gets that honor.  And Zirkle is not far behind in that category, making up a bunch of time on  Seavey to lose by a couple of minutes.

John Baker spent the night at Elim with a bunch of other teams wary of the Golovin Bay winds.  He is now  in White Mountain, and will leave at midnight in 17thplace.  He is unlikely to move up. (there I  go again)  Katherine Keith spent the night at a shelter cabin 15 miles past Shaktoolik.  She made it to Koyuk around  6 pm in 26th place, and has  a good chance to hold her spot.  I suspect she will be delighted if she does.

The Kuskokwim trio left White  Mountain and are headed for Nome.  Mike Williams Jr was one of few teams traveling last night, and he made it  from Elim to White  Mountain in the teeth of the wind. He trained all  year on ice here in Bethel, which likely served him well in that run.

There will be one more report  tomorrow.  For more Iditarod news, and other assorted  stuff, check the monthly news  on  my website,

Zirkle 1st Into Safety, King Trouble on the Trail, Swenson Calling the Shots in Downtown Nome

Aily Zirkle  was the first to check in at Safety, as reports of 45 mile per hour winds  emerge.  Jeff King is parked  about 4 miles from   Safety, and there is no word what the issue might be.  I do know  that some dogs have an upper limit  on wind, and 45 might be past it.    Lots of  communication between serious race fans tonight.  Five time champion Rick Swenson was one who called.  He said  depending on how things shape up in the next couple hours, he might  have a drink in downtown Nome.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Final Report for the Night

Some analysts just don’t  know much.   Aily Zirkle is now in the lead near Safety.  Best info is that a ground blizzard  stopped Jeff King, and he has been stalled at the same place for about an hour.  Its around  25 miles to Nome, and its  a dog race.


Bad weather  near Safety might  cause  a shake-up in  the finish.    Jeff King has stopped for a period of time near   Safety, likely because of bad winds and blowing snow.  This reporting mechanism can’t possibly keep you correctly updated, but watch Facebook for more  details.

Record Breaking and Weather Related Drama Mid Pack

Much of  the suspense surrounding the  Iditarod finish has been eliminated with  the mandatory 8 hour layover in White Mountain.  I was on the  race board when the rule was  discussed, and some mentioned  it would create an unofficial finish line at  that location and indeed it has.  Teams jockey for  position arriving at White Mountain, knowing well that after an eight hour rest, most good teams will have a strong run to Nome and  positions won’t change much.  Jeff King is rolling along toward his fifth victory, in record time.  The suspense of that win disappeared when  King pulled away from Zirkle leaving Koyuk.  All that’s left now is to collect his prize.

As a guy who also pulls for the underdog, it would be nice to see new people win the race.  That is not to detract from King’s win, it’s just a personal preference. Other fans  like to see champions win over and over.   I know King fairly well and he understands that everyone has their  favorite musher.  He also knows  that I respect his ability  to win five times.  One has to feel for Zirkle and her third straight second place finish.  One can always say wait for next year but things change.  A special dog grows older and  his replacement is not as special.   Any number of such problems could prevent  Zirkle  from having  a front running team in the  future.  Look at  Sonny Lindner.  He finished second so long ago I can’t remember the  year, and he will retire this year without  winning.

Aside from the finish there appears to be some weather related drama  back in the pack.  Winds have been clocked around 40 mph.  Long run times for  teams from Elim to White Mountain show that the  wind is creating  issues.  There are parts of the tail that are blow holes, and  Golovin Bay is one such place.  With glare ice, big winds make travel very difficult.   If there was  loose snow blowing as well it  would be  nearly impossible.  The trip from Shaktoolik  to Koyuk will not be much fun tonight, and  there are stretches   in the last 40 miles to Nome that are rough in the wind as well.  The wind is mostly a tail wind reportedly at that location, but still  not easy.

One of the worst parts of big wind on the coast is the mental part.  After the grueling  miles covered to get there, it  sort of one last insult to the racers.  I have hanging in my office an old photo on the  Safety to Nome stretch, showing myself and the dogs leaning into the wind, sled tilted, and dogs ears blowing  sideways.  Shouted encouragement from a few  hardy fans could barely be heard.  And that was after the wind died down that day.   I believe my exact quote was “where the hell is Nome?”

John Baker is in Elim, and apparently  he and others camped there can feel the wind cause they have stayed a long time.  Youngsters Pete Kaiser and Richie Diehl are buddies with Baker, and know him to be  a guy who trains in heavy winds.  If he is sitting tight, they probably figure it’s a good idea. Running as they are in the middle of the paying positions, there is not a great incentive to stumble off into such a blustery night.

Katherine Keith left  Shaktoolik  in the afternoon and appears to be only about 15  miles out of the checkpoint,  where there is a shelter cabin.  From this far away, my advice is to stay there.  The weather is not expected to improve into tomorrow.  Paige Drobny appears to be stopped about  15 miles ahead of her.    The current  weather  at Shaktoolik is -2 degrees,  with a  46  mph wind.  I  have raced in similar weather,  and I get a bad feeling when I type those words.

Iditarod officials have a good pulse on events  like this, and  it is likely  there will be efforts made  tomorrow morning to  check  on any teams not in checkpoints.  That doesn’t make the night any shorter  for the ones that are out there.