Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Day 3 with Sam Towarak

Sam's Analysis
Each year, a Spirit Award is given by Pen Air for the first musher to McGrath. Kudos to Danny Seybert and the entire Pen Air crew for promoting the Spirit of the Iditarod.

The mushers are a few miles from McGrath and moving towards their 24 hour. If we were to stop the Iditarod right now and let everyone take their 24, there would be some surprises. We wondered in our last blog about the changing of the Guard with the younger mushers moving up. While old timers and long time followers of the race can be proud of the veterans that occupy the top positions. Why, even Rick Swenson is currently in eleventh place out of Nikolai with Dee Dee Jonrowe in twelfth place with Sonny Lindner leaving in the fifteenth position. This assures the public that these perennial favorite mushers are still contenders and should always be considered as serious competitors.

There are over 20 teams on the 48 mile trail heading for McGrath from Nikolai with more poised to move forward at any moment. This will crowd the 24 hour favorite spot, Takotna. Look to see some mushers moving up to Ophir to take their 24 just to maintain some quiet rest time for themselves and their dogs. Than the mushers in the thirtys to be happy with their 24 in McGrath.

The twenty four hour has another twist that can affect the race and that is the time adjustment. Remember that all mushers left in 2 minute intervals from Willow so the first musher has a jump on the other competitors so the equalization time comes at the 24. Musher Ray Redington Jr who left in second position (Number 1 goes to the Honorary musher) will have to spend 2 hrs and 12 minutes longer for a total of 26 hours and 12 minutes. The last musher, Ryan Redington will only spend 24 hours as he has no extra minutes to spend. This levels the playing field for the rest of the Race. Ryan can tell Ray Jr that he gained over 2 hours without even lifting a finger. Two hours translated into miles can change the playing field. Look to see the time adjustment on the rest of the field and it could actually change some positions in the race.

Snow continues to dominate the race. It has caused the dogs to expend more as well as lose the trail. A couple of the lead mushers took a dead end and had to turn around. The snow is dry and powdery and can put the leaders in a lot of stress just trying to stay on the trail. John Baker in an interview in Nikolai said his team faced the challenges and he has never been so proud of his team. Mushers are dropping very few dogs and that is the plus of an abundance of snow. Believe it or not, the challenges of the snow will be even more when the mushers head to Cripple and Ruby. You will find a lot of weary mushers who probably are yelling gee and haw in their sleep when they reach the Yukon.

The 24 hour break comes at a good time for my blogging, I'll be back on Thursday evening.

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

Good Old Days in McGrath by Myron Angstman

Myron's Analysis
As the lead  teams pass through McGrath,  Iditarod race history becomes an important topic. Recent race followers  may have a hard time imagining the early years of the race when McGrath  was the focal point of the first half of the race, with hundreds of race fans  crowding  in, and racers spending  long hours stopped in the  community.   The focus of those early years at McGrath was the famous local business known as McGuires Tavern.

There was an early Iditarod  special on TV, narrated by some British  dude who traveled the trail by helicopter and  reported on what he saw.  He described  McGuires as “one of the world’s greatest pubs” and it probably seemed that way  after a few days on the trail without  a drink.  In fact, McGuires was a meeting spot for rural Alaska, and during the Iditarod crowds  packed the place, for a chance to buy a beer, or two, for the mushers who stopped for a little break.  It is a  commonly  known fact that at least two Yukon River  racers probably lost the Iditarod by staying too long at Mcgrath, and most of that time was spent at McGuires.  By too long I mean a day or so.

I actually spent a little time at McGuires,  but it was only to gather material for this blog.  I feel the need to report on those events.  One time I spent an evening  at McGuires with a  race  veterinarian,  who was not supposed to drink  because of an ultimatum from his wife.  He convinced me at about 2 am to call her from the bar pay phone to tell her he was  on duty, working hard late at night. It didn’t work. The bar noise was  obvious. He was divorced soon after.

Another time I was called at 4 am for legal help. The caller said he had been assaulted  during the  race at McGuires and wanted to know if he could sue the assailant. I was a little groggy and  decided to ask a few questions.  “Where are you calling from” I asked.  “I’m on the floor under the phone at McGuires”. He explained that is where he landed after the assault, and he had had his friend dial me up immediately.   By morning he forgot he had called.

Then there was Freight Train, a local legend.  Freight  Train was a cat skinner in the local gold mines, who liked to drink at McGuires. One time during a race he copied the old  TV stunt of smashing  a beer can into his face, except he used a glass. It broke, so did he, and he left with  a huge gash in his face.  He apparently went to the local health aide for stitches and returned  in an hour to order another drink. He died  a few years later as a fairly young man, and his obituary  stated he died of too much fun, and most of it was at McGuires.

One other famous story involved a western Alaska pilot who stopped for a few beers at McGuires on his way to Anchorage. The bar is located right on the airport parking ramp.  He left the bar drunk, and flew west instead of east. When  the troopers found him a few days later on the bank of the Innoko River,   his first words were “What took you so long”  It didn’t take very long at all to revoke his flying permit.

McGrath held its own race  called the Mail Trail 202 for many years and McGuires was the race headquarters.   It was quite the spot.  All  that is in the past.  Tonight, there is likely a small group there, but most nights visiting McGuires is like going to a haunted house.  You sense the presence of the old timers, but they aren’t  there.  Few mushers stop for more than five minutes in McGrath, and for that reason the race fans that do venture along the trail tend to congregate in Takotna where more many mushers take 24 hours.

I had a beer at McGuires when I raced in 1979, and  one more in Takotna when that bar was still open. That was a different Iditarod.  It is likely no racer will visit McGuires this year, and it might not even be allowed.  But a little flavor of the race has been lost by the  calculated way in which it is run today.  The good old days weren’t always that good,   but when it comes to the Iditarod, they really were.

Myron Angstman, lawyer, pilot, and dog musher, lives in Bethel, Alaska. Read more about dogs, law suits and rural Alaska gossip by checking http://www.myronangstman.com/

Leaders into Nikolai by Myron Angstman

Myron's Analysis
Rarely does an  eventual  Iditarod winner arrive  more than a  few hours after the first team into Nikolai.  The first Native village on the trail,   Nikolai  sits at the end of  a long  run through the Alaska Range, and  usually provides the first real indication of how teams are stacking up. 

With Aliy Zirkle arriving there first, there  is little question that  she is a serious contender to win,  especially considering  that same team was a very close second  in the 2012   Yukon Quest.   

But long time race watchers like myself also know that  the next run is frequently the one that  sorts out some of the the  weaker teams.  That’s because  the rest at Nikolai is frequently sliced a little thin because a number of teams are planning to rest 24 hours at Takotna after the next run of about 70 miles.  Their  thinking goes, well if  I am taking a long rest soon,  lets  make sure the dogs are ready to take advantage of  it.  
Watch the  running times carefully into McGrath, and then even closer into  Takotna.  That last 20 mile run is revealing. Many of the best  racers will tell you starting out speed is not the key to winning, it’s the speed at the end of a run.   Many teams when rested develop a fair amount of speed that lasts for a while, but winning teams often have a slower starting speed that can be sustained longer.   John Baker has that kind of team.  

By checking  the traveling speed of a team coming into Takotna,  after a 70 mile run from Nikolai, you can often have a glimpse of which team will be leading  further down the trail.    That assumes of course that the  teams you are checking all are within a certain distance from the front of the pack already.   Teams too far back, especially this year with so many teams  bunched at the front, are  basically out of luck.

Learning this kind of information  is a snap these days. With GPS trackers, numerous on the trail bloggers and  countless websites,  anyone can do their homework and make a decent prediction about what might transpire.

It’s a far cry from very recent times when fans like myself had to go to great lengths to get good information.  As late as the early  1990’s I used to call  the Iditarod  race  line six or eight times a day to obtain checkpoint times.  To assure a prompt and  informed response, I would often suggest I was a reporter from the New York Times. That usually  got me right to the source.  Even that amount  of information  far surpassed what was  available when I ran the race in 1979.  For middle of the pack racers such as me, the reports  were sometimes two days old on the  radio reports.  

Myron Angstman, lawyer, pilot, and dog musher, lives in Bethel, Alaska. Read more about dogs, law suits and rural Alaska gossip by checking www.myronangstman.com