Saturday, March 3, 2012

Ceremonial Start by Sam Towarak

Sam's Analysis

Today is the ceremonial start of Iditarod 40 with the start in downtown Anchorage. My most memorable ceremonial start was when I rented a room facing Fourth Avenue at the Captain Cook in the high rise section. Our family woke to dogs barking about 730am, whereupon we order room service breakfast and looked out the window eating breakfast and enjoying the activity. I highly recommend you do something like this at least once in your lifetime.

I begin my blog with my personal efforts to renew the Iditarod spirit especially in rural Alaska and working on John Baker’s blog gives me an opportunity to give insights to a rural musher whose dedication to his sport has earned him the highest honor of Iditarod champion. This feat created a giant rumble in rural Alaska and I want to continue that momentum with my analysis and what I am calling the renewal of the Iditarod Spirit. Despite all the distractions with advances in rapid media to rural Alaska, we need to capture that spirit and use it to reinvigorate our personal lives.

John Baker in his quest to win a back to back knows the challenge that faces him. In 2003, I interviewed him and I asked him how difficult a challenge it has been to place in the top 5-10. John has been that consistent and knows the competitive rigors needed for a top finish. In 2010, I saw his primary and second team move steadily in the Kobuk 440 and was very impressed with the steady “clumping” of the dog’s feet- this was a personal moment in which I witnessed the character of his team. You may remember John during the 2010 Iditarod race could not find the midpoint of the race (the Cripple checkpoint location moved their location from the previous year) and this cost him some valuable time. That same nucleus of the team is back will race in the 2012 Iditarod.

Tomorrow we can talk about the first day and half of the race but overall the race has developed into a race of proficiency. At any moment in the race, you have to be vigilant in order to maintain your competitive edge. One mental error and this could set you back the few minutes needed to win the race. All of the top echelon of Iditarod mushers know about overall strategy in winning the race- they break the race down into segments and strategize from there. This has affected training regimens as well as individual dog selection. Much of this change can be attributed to success by mushers like Lance Mackey, John Baker and Ramey Smyth where steady dogs with a clumping mentality (not galloping) are at the top towards the end of the race. This year has proven to be a challenge in race training given the extreme temperatures and the abundance of snow. Trail conditions will dictate the race as a gentle snow (more snow?) falls as the mushers leave Anchorage. John knows about gentle snow, a few years ago, light snow necessitates more feeding of the dogs to maintain their energy level- which takes time and this will affect the total time of the race (does this mean a slower race than last years record breaker?).

As you see the excitement in the dogs, you can’t forget that the real athletes are the dogs. Yet the dogs cannot make important decisions as these are left to the musher, the musher support crew, vets, race marshall, Iditarod support crew- enjoy the Last Great Race!

Sam Towarak, retired school teacher, dog musher, and sports commentator, lives in Unalakleet, Alaska. 

Race Ready

Perhaps the most important decision for a musher is which dogs will make the team. The sixteen dogs John selected from his kennel for the 2012 team roster has over thirty years of combined Iditarod trail experience. Add his sixteen years and this means there is nearly fifty years of valuable trail experience between the musher and dogs he travels with.

John puts harness on Sprocket

Velvet and Snickers make up a “snappy front end” as described by 1989 Iditarod champ, Joe Runyan.

Rising star athletes who happen to also be litter mates, Ripple, Swift, and Ocean, will be running with their father Summit, a leader who will most likely be sharing the lead during the long race.

A motivator for the rest of the team, Kona, will be running with her daughter, Angel, a rookie in this year’s team, who shows plenty of potential.

Tough-looking Rambo, is as strong as he looks, and two of his off-spring also his teammates this year, Frankie and Speckle, both inherited his endurance.

While brothers, Sprocket and Fender, have each run two Iditarod’s, this year is the first time they will be on the same team.

The most photographed dog on the team is Huffy, who always looks so poised.

With a most recognizable voice and the one that alerts the team is Sonar, who has a penetrating bark and keeps watch for the other dogs.

Finally, the biggest, most lovable dog on the line is Mongoose. For photos and information about each dog go to .

John and Velvet visiting vet
 A visit to the family doc and veterinarian, Dr. Phil Meyer and the Iditarod volunteer vets who checked over each dog to make sure they are healthy and ready to go, confirms this will once again be a powerful team. “Impressive athletic heart beats” said the vet tech as she reviewed the EKG which measures the heart activity for each dog. Everyone gathers to look at the EKG printout and a proud smile spreads across John’s face and he says, “It’s truly a privilege to travel with these amazing dogs.”

This will be John’s seventeenth Iditarod. Each year prior to Iditarod40 Baker has come into the race as a strong contender yet has been under the radar. All that has changed since winning the 2011 Iditarod Sled Dog Race and now the spotlight is often on him.

Known for being efficient and focused, John exhibits patience while dealing with all the attention, as he concentrates on his dogs. Soon the teams will be off and running and Team Baker can do what they do best and have been training for all year. Are they ready? John's response to this question was, "Oh, yes! Both the dogs and I are very ready to get out on the trail!"

A potent combination includes: vast experience + readiness for the race + eagerness to get going + team toughness = a very race ready Team Baker.