Sunday, March 11, 2012

Day 8 with Sam Towarak

Sam's Analysis
People in Unalakleet greet the mushers with their beautiful parkas, getting into the Iditarod Spirit.

A couple days ago, we were talking about the veterans in control of the race and today, we see a little change happening. Dallas Seavey has taken the lead, stopping about 10 miles out of Shaktoolik on the trail to Koyuk with Aaron Burmeister, Aliy Zirkle and John Baker choosing to stop in Shaktoolik. The run across the Norton Bay will happen with below zero temperatures. Teams are running out of time to try and catch the leader.

Dallas Seavey’s team coming into Shaktoolik looked very impressive so Dallas took advantage of that and went for 10 miles more before stopping. Mushers will stop on long runs to snack or rest the dogs. Most of the teams stop their teams at regular intervals to allow the dog’s body to recoup and regenerate their bodies. The colder temperatures will dehydrate the dogs so more watering is needed to keep the dogs hydrated.

The “three musketeers” was broken up today when Jake Berkowitz had a knife accident cutting his hand and he was withdrawn from the race given the severity of the cut hand. The other two, Ray Redington Jr. and Peter Kaiser continue to impress the field with the speed of their dogs. Another veteran, Jeff King scratched from the race about 11 miles out of Unalakleet due to sick dogs. He also stated the well groomed trail set up by the trail breakers and the speed of the race as a result of the nice trail.

More team have scratched today including Pat Moon who was driving Middy Johnson’s team. Pat cited the small dog team that he was driving (down to 7 dogs) as reason for the scratch. Expect more scratches further up the trail due to the cold and tough conditions faced so far in the race.

The race is down to the four teams in and out of Shaktoolik. Like earlier stated, options are decreasing for the mushers to disrupt the leader. A bold move can happen overnight or tomorrow to see if there can be a change in the top position. We also could see a race from White Mountain to Safety and who knows, maybe a front street showdown.

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

Sunday Evening Report by Myron Angstman

Myron's Analysis
Events of the past hour have clarified the situation regarding the race for first in the Iditarod. Dallas Seavey blew through Shaktoolik and has a nine mile lead at this writing over both Burmeister and Zirkle, who are stopped in the checkpoint. It would take a dramatic event to derail Dallas from his first win at this point. Chasing a faster team is difficult at best, and the longer the gap, the harder it is. Neither Zirkle or Burmeister would have let Dallas go unless there was a serious need to stop. Earlier today, Burmeister maintained a 2 mile gap for some distance after Dallas caught and passed him leaving Unalakleet. That suggested some parity. Zirkle also maintained a steady gap after the early miles of that leg.

It is too early to declare the race for first over, but there is an obvious front runner who is likely to win. There are a couple of notable departures from the race as well. Jake Berkowitz was withdrawn from the race by officials after he suffered a serious hand wound on the trail while cutting meat for dogs. Both for his safety, and that of the dogs he must care for, the decision was made at Unalakleet to pull him from the race. That is the second time in two years such an incident has ended the race for a strong racer. Last year it was Mitch Seavey who cut himself. He told me before this year's race it was clearly the right decision, although he tried to convince the race marshall he was able to continue. No second guessing is needed here. No racer would be pulled from the race by the experienced race marshall Mark Nordman unless it was a serious situation, and witnesses say it was for Berkowitz.

Jeff King scratched, his first Iditarod scratch ever I believe, after a tough run from Kaltag. I have scratched a few times, and as a recreational musher I did so when things went sour and it was no longer fun. I only wanted to win or place high. If the dogs were not doing well, all of us felt better after we stopped. I always had something better to do than crawl to the finish line. I'm guessing King does too.

There is no shortage of stuff written about this year's race. I read much of it. Aaron Burmeister gets lots of ink for being a heavy smoker, and somewhat out of shape. Let me defend him. Aaron is a veteran racer who has paid his dues by performing out of the limelight most of the time. He has his best run going this year, by far. He's a good guy and a person who promotes dog racing anyway he can--not himself, but the sport of racing. I am delighted to see him do well in this year's race.

ADDED FOLLOW-UP: Dallas Seavey may have stopped on the edge of the ice 10 miles north of Shaktoolik for a good reason. From that vantage point he could see several miles behind him and  start moving  when a team approached.  If he had stopped in the village,  a following team could leave right with him, a big advantage for the  slower team. This way he keeps a lead and still has  chance to rest his speedy team.  We will see if this is his plan, because Zirkle is approaching his resting spot as I write this note.

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

Sunday Morning Report by Myron

Myron's Analysis

The stage is now set for one of the best coast runs in the recent history of the Iditarod. That possibility is based on the number of teams still in the running at Unalakleet. As of this writing, eight teams have arrived within five hours of the leader Aliy Zirkle. Four of those eight teams are moving faster that Zirkle, and the last three of those eight teams are probably the fastest teams in the race. (I haven’t checked speeds way back in the pack where there is sometimes a very fast team taking big breaks at checkpoints) With that set up, there can still be a lot of jockeying for position.

Dallas Seavey has the edge based on team speed and current position. Zirkle had almost an hour lead into Unalakleet, but is moving slower than Dallas. Burmeister has the biggest string of dogs (15) and they are the best eaters among the leaders, and of course calories consumed are like gallons of gas poured in your car. They determine how fast and far you can go. Defending champion John Baker has a history of strong runs along the coast. The temps on the coast right now are brutal. I think that helps Baker, who trains in Kotzebue where warm winter days are rare. Certainly he can’t be counted out, but it is hard for a slower team to catch a faster team that is out ahead. That is Baker’s task now that he arrived in fourth place.

Another former champ Mitch Seavey appears to be fading. His long run from Takotna to Ruby might have left his dogs a bit low on energy. The next three, Redington, Berowitz and Kaiser rolled into Unalakleet with good times and reportedly lots of energy. I sense they might be a bit too far behind (4-5 hours) to contend for the top spot, but look for them to move up.

It is likely there will be two long runs for most of these teams to White Mountain. Because of the 8 hour mandatory layover in White Mountain, that check point has become more or less the de facto finish line. I haven’t done the research, but it is rare for the first team into White Mountain to lose its lead by Nome.

What is it like to be on the sled as the finish line approaches? I have done enough racing to pass along what it was like to be among the leaders in a tight contest. The lack of sleep becomes less of a factor because of the excitement level which builds as the race reaches its final stages. Intense concentration on the events in front of the sled consumes the racer. The dogs are scanned constantly for any sign of problems. The racer knows the gait of each dog, and is by now very used to the speed of travel and energy displayed by each dog. Any change in those factors is a cause for concern. Occasionally a dog will stop pulling for a short time for reasons I never understood. The line would go slack, and I would hold my breath worried that I would have to carry that dog, which was the cause of more than one lost race for me. I would watch the dog intently, sometimes to see the dog gradually fade to the point where I had to put it in the sled. Other times the problem would pass and the dog would fall back into rhythm. Time then to return the focus to the rest of the team.

How far should I go before a short snack? Keep an eye on the trail markers. Losing the trail for even a short time is a disaster in the late stage of a race. Where is the team ahead of us? Where is the team behind us? Is my headlite bright enough? Man am I thirsty, but my juice is frozen. I could sure use a pee break right now, but too much hassle. All these thoughts and more used to race through my mind as we moved along the trail. Long hours on the back of a sled can be boring at times, but not in late stages of a tight dog race.

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