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.

Finishing Positions Narrowed Down and Joe Redington Sr

The two team race from last night  is now down to mainly a one team race.  Unless unusual circumstances develop tonight  Jeff King will set a new record time and win his fifth  Iditarod.  He leads by about an hour, and has consistently had strong runs since  taking his late 24 hour  break at Ruby.  If past race history  is a guide, look for many teams to wait longer for their 24 hour break in the future. Even though King may have won this race  by taking his break anywhere, racers often go with the  a successful race plan employed by a champion the following year.
Aily Zirkle  seems a good bet for second, although Dallas Seavey has made up a lot of ground in the last couple of days.    He  is likely third, and from there it  becomes muddled. John Baker  is 15th into Koyuk and could move higher.    Katherine Keith is out of  Unalakleet in 30th place, the last paying  position.
Yesterday I promised a tale or two about Joe Redington Sr., the man who started the Iditarod in the 1970’s.  I raced against Redington in the Iditarod, Kuskokwim  300, John Beargrease and Coldfoot Classic.  All provided stories, because  Old Joe was that kind of guy.  For example, in the  300, I was right behind Joe coming into Bethel during the  1982 race on a bright sunny day.  He was running second, but it looked like I was ready to pass him.   Joe was an  equipment hog, and always had a heavy sled full of gear.  We had about 10 miles to  go and it was too late for him to lighten his sled because there were no more  checkpoints.  But that didn’t stop Joe.  He started messing  with his double battery pack (five pounds or so) and pretended to drop it on the trail.  He hollered back to ask me if I would grab it.  I  grabbed  it, and realized it was a net change of ten pounds  in sled weight.  I spotted a snow machine driver  I knew and tossed him the battery pack, and  asked him to deliver it to Joe at the finish line. I was able to pass him anyway, even with his lighter sled.
In the 1986  Coldfoot race, held in April   in the Brooks Range, night time temps were dropping  out of sight. Before we started it was dropping to -45, and warming  to 20 above during long daylight hours in April.  On the first day of the race, Joe pulled up by me and we chatted a bit.  He was off his sled, and his dogs  pulled  the hook and took off  up the Koyukuk River,  which was mostly ice.  He hopped in my sled and we followed.  Luckily  we caught them in about  20 minutes, parked along the edge of the river just before dark. We camped in the woods nearby and the temp started to drop quickly.  Joe fed his dogs and crawled into his sled in the  biggest sleeping bag  I had ever seen about  midnight.  He zipped up his sled cover  and asked me to wake him up when I got up, which I planned for about   4  am, before daylight.  When I woke up after a cold night in the sled, I shook Joe’s sled. “Time to go Joe”.  Joe, then nearing 70 years old, asked me to  check his thermometer attached to his sled.  I shined my headlight at the gauge, which read -56 and reported  to Joe.  “I think I’ll sleep a little while  longer” he wisely responded. Since that day I have often wondered what would have happened  if we failed to find his team  before dark the night before. 
As years go by  fewer people  remember the role Joe played in starting and growing the Iditarod.  Without his effort  and vision there would  be no Iditarod, and likely no long distance racing.  All of us involved in the sport, including fans, need to be honor his role in this sport, and what better day than today when we prepare for the finish.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Two Team Race

This morning I suggested it might be a two team race by tonight, and  it looks like it is.  King and Zirkle left  Koyuk together  and no one gave chase until they were well down the trail.  Buser finally  followed, but he was three hours and 24 miles behind them and has been moving slower for some time.  Lindner  had a slow run across the bay, and he is still in   Koyuk, with little chance to catch either team.   The two Seaveys  have been moving fast, but apparently  figure they can’t keep it up without a decent rest.   Either Seavey could try to bolt through  Elim and cut the gap, but  that is looking like a long shot now.  Dallas  is now 26 miles behind King leaving  Koyuk.

If the two front runners  are the contenders, King would seem to have  the edge on speed.  He went out  one minute ahead of Zirkle  and that lead has now stretched to almost three miles.  He still has a long  way to go, but don’t bet against him at this point.  Look for a finish late Monday or early Tuesday in record time.

John Baker has moved up a bit.  He told Andy  Angstman at Unalakleet that the team is performing better recently.  He arrived in Shaktoolik in 15th place, but is now bumping  into teams  that have shown more speed   throughout the race so moving up will be difficult.  His average moving speed of 7.2 mph for the entire race  is a full  mile per hour slower than Pete  Kaiser who is also in Shaktoolik. Baker has   often beaten faster teams but it takes long tough runs to do so.  Katherine Keith left Kaltag in 29th place this evening.  The Iditarod pays  30 places.

Tomorrow morning the front runners will be resting in White  Mountain so I will diverge a bit with some stories about the  Father of the Iditarod, Joe Redington.  Feedback from readers suggests  that  there is plenty of analysis to be found elsewhere  but old  time dog race stories  are harder to find. I have a pretty good supply.

One final note, someone inquired about tracker fever, the  new disease mentioned this morning common among race fans.   It is clearly  a virus,  in fact it’s a computer virus.

Nome is a Long Ways Away

The run across the ice to  Koyuk  shows  Aily Zirkle  still in the lead, but a closer look shows  Jeff King moving faster in second place.  Right now,  he seems to  have the edge, but   Nome is  a long ways away.  Martin Buser and Sonny  Lindner are about  10-12  miles behind, and their speed  is a  bit off the pace of the front two.  The fastest moving team in sight is Dallas Seavey, about 20 miles behind  Zirkle and still not out of it.  His mad dash of the last 24 hours has put him back in the discussion, but it remains to be seen how much  dash he has  left.

A speedy run from  Kaltag has moved  Pete Kaiser  up in the standings.   His  9 hour run put  him  in 15th place, just ahead of  John Baker who did the portage in 12 ½ hours.    Richie Diehl moved up to 18th place, passing  Mike Williams Jr who now sits in 23rd place, not yet in Unalakleet. Katherine Keith is in 29th, also on the portage.  Meanwhile at the back of the pack rookie Elliot Anderson  has not yet reached  Ruby.

Yesterday’s  discussion of early race  communication brought back memories of how fans used to follow the race.  In early races,  Iditarod headquarters had a phone bank of volunteers  who had a list  of info to dispense to callers. Of course that was a long distance call from rural  Alaska, so time was at a premium  and some volunteers  were slow on the draw.  One tactic that worked was to claim to be from the media, which  of course produced immediate results.  I often called in as Scott Simpson from the New York Times and  people really responded.   Occasionally  a call to a  checkpoint would find a capable observer to describe the scene.  In some villages I had reliable buddies who would  have all the important news when  I called.

Later,  the fax machine became important.  I convinced  headquarters that I needed regular faxes of the standings, so they put me on their every hour list.  Bethel folks would stop by at all hours for an up date, and when I went to gatherings I would bring along the most recent  report and  tack it on the wall.  The internet changed all of that, and for many years most people had instant access to the latest standings, which at the time seemed light years ahead of the early races.  But the advent of the tracker  has completely changed the life of  the fan.  Now instead of  not enough information, we have too much.  I know I am not the only  person who spends way too much time  receiving race info on the computer.  Tracker fever might be a new medical condition.

Watch  for major moves at Koyuk.  Teams with time to make up often try to  do it there.  By late tonight, we  might be able to reduce our  contender list to two.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Quite the Battle at a Record Pace

This morning  it was suggested that by tonight  it would be possible to select three contenders, so here goes.   Earlier  I picked five  likely contenders  when the teams were around Ruby.  Two of those have faded.  Robert Sorlie has lost speed and dropped  back,  and is  likely out of contention.   Martin Buser is  still in second, but his traveling speed is such that he isn’t likely  to be able to keep up  with the three faster teams  now running near him.   The three remaining teams,  Aily Zirkle, Sonny Lindner  and  Jeff King should  battle it out for the win.  And it could be quite a battle.

Zirkle is in the lead.   She has had some great runs to get where she is  and will not surrender the lead easily.  She uses ski poles most of the time, and   has had excellent speed.   Lindner is second and has the slowest average speed of the three,  but has had a couple longer runs without a break.  That tactic  becomes significant  from now on, as breaks become less possible. King has taken more breaks, but is moving the fastest of the three most of the time. The fact that both  Lindner and King took their 24  hour break  at Ruby  is significant in figuring traveling speed.  The posted speed is based on the entire race, and it appears that both teams have had a better speed compared to  Zirkle since  Ruby, although those precise numbers  are not posted.

Zirkle left  Unalakleet after a four  hour break this evening.   Teams trying to win sometimes go direct to Koyuk  without a stop in Shaktoolik.  I don’t expect  Zirkle to do that yet.  Seasoned  race watchers  have suggested to me she likes to take a break every six hours or so, and likely will keep that up as  long as she is ahead.  Lindner would be more likely  to use that option to  erase  the  lead  Zirkle now has. King has also been breaking regularly, as he did last year after passing through Koyuk, in a move that enabled Mitch  Seavey to pass him and win.

I have a set of eyes on the ground in  Unalakleet,  Andy Angstman,  who is reporting what he sees.  He has contributed to the  naming of the three likely contenders, based on watching the teams arrive.  I also had  a chance to chat with five time champion Rick Swenson, who helped  Lindner prepare for the race. Swenson of course knows more about racing the Iditarod than anyone, and he also helped me  make my picks.  Swenson reported that despite his age (64) Lindner is a master at going without sleep.  There will likely be no sleep from  now until White Mountain, and that is often a factor in deciding who wins.

A team that was moving fast  in recent runs experienced  difficulty  just before reaching Unalakleet and scratched.  Nic Petit was running in third place at the time. He had trouble at the spot where Jeff King’s team faltered in another recent  Iditarod after a strong run.  John Baker left Kaltag tonight  in 18th place, and Katherine Keith arrived in Nulato this afternoon in 30th place.  She has  fallen well behind the top rookie Abbie West who left  Kaltag in 16th place.

If there are  three teams still in the running tomorrow evening it will be unusual.  Most often there are one or two teams  out of reach of their challengers  by the time the front of the race reaches Elim.  The race is on record pace, and there seems  little reason to expect that will change.  The record, of course, belongs  to John Baker. 

Ahead of Schedule and the FBI

Aily Zirkle has  jumped into the lead of the race  by not stopping at Kaltag.  At this moment, she appears to be stopped about 30 miles up the trail  with Martin  Buser closing in from behind.    Buser’s travel times have been slower, and  he will have a hard time  keeping up with Zirkle in the days ahead.  He also faces strong  challenges from behind  with fast moving teams now resting in Kaltag.   The two fastest runs from Nulato to  Kaltag belonged to Nic Petit and Sonny Lindner who announced that this is his last race.  He probably made that decision  after bouncing off  a tree in Rainy Pass.

Earlier it was suggested  that by Sunday night the contenders could be narrowed to three.  Because the race is  significantly  ahead of schedule, that date can be moved up to Saturday night.  Tune in here tonight for the straight  scoop.

These twice daily reports might be  the only Iditarod news for a few readers, but obviously  the amount of Iditarod news available to fans is astounding.  At any  moment, a fan  can access the tracker  and learn the precise location of any team, and the speed they are moving. There are eyewitness accounts of the race posted  throughout the day, and video reports are common.  The contrast between the current coverage and early years in dramatic.  Radio and newspaper reports were notoriously  late reporting race status  well into the 1980’s.  In Bethel we would hear a radio report in the morning that often had locations of mushers reported the previous  afternoon,  and  because teams were not required to sign out of checkpoints,  the reports  often had some musher parked in a checkpoint when actually  he  was  50-75 miles down the trail.  Ham radio was the  official  communication network of the race, and  of course the lone operator  at each checkpoint had to  sleep once in a while.  I remember serving as race judge   in 1980 at Unalakleet, where I was stationed in a  room with the checker and the ham  operator.  The radio man lived on coffee, provided by the race, and peanut butter sandwiches the entire race.  We were a ways from the village store and  one time the radio operator  walked over to replenish  his groceries (bread, peanut butter). While he was gone an urgent request came over the  radio asking for the location  of a particular team which I knew was parked outside.  I knew there were fairly strict  Federal rules about who could operate a ham radio, but this was important info, so after a few unanswered calls I picked up the  microphone and answered the question.  There was dead silence on the  radio for  several moments.  Finally  someone asked me to confirm my call sign.  I responded that I didn’t have one.   More silence.  Finally  the operator returned  from the store and I found a reason to tour the checkpoint.  I can only imagine the chatter while I was gone.

When I returned I was told of the possible penalties for talking on ham radio without a license. It was suggested  that Federal prison was a real possibility.  I didn’t talk on the radio again, but I never went to prison. I guess at -20 with a stiff breeze, the FBI didn’t want to  travel to Unalakleet to arrest me. 

Friday, March 7, 2014

Jockeying for Position

Today’s events on the trail confirm most of what was  conjectured here last night.   Martin Buser held the lead for much of  the day, and was first into Nulato.  Next up was  Sonny Lindner, who was the fastest moving team coming down the Yukon after his long rest in Ruby.  The third team into Nulato was Aily Zirkle, and moving well.     Jeff King was  traveling fourth, and  that is a bit of a surprise coming after his long rest in Ruby.  His speed didn't match Lindner’s, and  he also stopped  for a rest in Galena, which  Lindner did not.  The fifth team, in a bit of surprise, was Nic Petit.  He has moved up mainly on the strength  of great speed, which he has shown  in the past few runs.

Not much can be drawn from this information.  Not all teams have  completed  their  mandatory 8 hour rest, and thus equal comparisons can’t be made.  Recent history tells me that the run to Unalakleet is where the elite teams emerge,  and today’s runs were jockeying for position to make a strong run to the coast.

John  Baker  at this writing sits in 13th place,  in Galena with a bunch of other teams that are just off the pace of  the leaders.  Baker  has yet to complete his  8 hour rest.   Katherine Keith is  in 27th place, third among the rookies, at Ruby.

Other teams of interest to many folks in rural Alaska should be mentioned.  Aaron Burmeister with Nome roots  has struggled along with a gimpy knee and has  stayed with the leaders fairly well.  He is in ninth place, in Galena, and has completed  his 8 hour rest.  His speed has slipped a bit, but Aaron is a gritty racer and will  have a good shot for the top ten.

Mike Williams Jr  is in 20th place with 9 dogs on his way to Ruby.  Pete  Kaiser and Richie Diehl are 22nd and 23rd, running in lock step on the way  to Galena as well.   Kaiser,  a  Bethel guy like me,  has a fairly young team and  expected his team  might not be ready to match his best finish of 5th this year.  Diehl is running his second race, and  has moved up significantly from last year when he finished 36th.

Morning Update

Overnight movement has not changed  my view of  how this race is shaping up.  Zirkle went further down the Yukon than I expected, to  Galena, but she  will need a long rest there,  and  Buser  left Ruby ahead of all the teams  that are taking their rest in Ruby. Next out was Burmeister, who also passed through Ruby without  resting.  Sorlie  followed him,  done with his mandatory  8 hour rest and moving well.  As mentioned  a couple of days ago here,   he  is emerging as the team to watch.  King and Lindner will complete   their 24 hour rests this morning and be on their  way,   with plenty of rest for dogs  and drivers,  to give chase.  How those teams  respond to their late  24 rest will  determine if they are  candidates for the top spot.

John Baker is near Ruby at this time,  and Katherine Keith left Cripple,  running a few  hours behind the  leading rookie,  after taking a long rest.

One item of interest  this morning is the reported extra half hour Robert Sorlie took at Ruby.  Taking more than the mandatory  eight hours is rare for the front runners,  and the reason for that delay  will emerge during the day I’m sure.  He might have slept late.

Two teams  who  had fast runs into Ruby are Petit and Redington.    Petit has been hanging around near the front of the pack much of the race, and one big run could put him in solid contention to win it all.  Redington  is a bit back of the front, but he also can’t be overlooked.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Bets Are In on the Top 5

Tonight I  pick the top five contenders to win the  2014 Iditarod.  This is based on current position, speed, history and a bit  of intuition.  There are some who will question these choices, and please feel free to post on the Baker website your choices.  They are probably better than mine.

Robert Sorlie is one of my contenders.  This is based primarily on today’s run, but also on his average moving speed  which  is  the highest in the race.  He has won twice before, he has  had a few years off to get ready for  this year, and all indications are he is on a roll.

Another contender Aily Zirkle is a bit harder to  figure. Today’s run included a stop not too far from Ruby,  suggesting she will  run straight through the village and   stop later. That puts her on a different schedule and also makes it harder to evaluate her chances.  But last year’s second place finish  figures into the decision to make her one of the five.

Jeff King also makes the cut, but this is a little longer reach because he will be a long ways behind leaving Ruby.  What remains to be seen is how much speed he will gain because of  the 24 hour rest he took in Ruby.  It might enable him to  make a big push down the Yukon, where the trail is very good, downhill, and with a tail wind.  His four previous titles figure  in my thinking as well.

Sonny Lindner makes the cut for many of the same reasons as King. He actually will have  about an  hour lead  on King leaving Ruby, and has  been very impressive in a couple of recent runs.   He is the oldest guy left in the race, and   those of us who live in the bush know that  older people have elder wisdom that shouldn’t  be overlooked.  By the way, I am older than Lindner.

The final member of the top five is Martin Buser.  He is likely to be the first team out of Ruby, and  also will likely have his mandatory 8 hour rest completed when  he leaves.  Zirkle might leave  earlier, but if she does she will  likely be stopping soon putting  Buser back in the lead.   His speed is still quite good on recent runs, and the Yukon trail will favor his usually speedy dogs.  His past wins also figure in my thinking, but  that is tempered somewhat by last year’s race when his early sprint ended up slowing him down a lot at the end.

John Baker does not  make the top five cut despite his history of catching up late.  He likely will move up in the next few days, but there are too many good teams ahead of him now to put  him among the contenders to win.   Katherine Keith won’t win, but she sure is  having a good run and is a serious candidate for rookie of the year.

Looking at Speed

Tonight I will pick my list of contenders, but a preview of that is possible  this morning.   King is putting on a  serious move, pulling away from Lindner on the run from Cripple to  Ruby. His speeds have been good.   Buser will have quite a lead leaving Ruby, thanks to his mad dash out of Willow.  It could  be several hours, maybe as many as 6  if he has a good run  today.  But there is speed  behind him.  The two fastest team in sight are Sorlie and Zirkle.  Sorlie  is 23 ahead of  Zirkle according to the tracker and is slowly emerging as the team to beat,

John Baker took his  24 break at Cripple and will leave there tonight.  Katherine  Keith will see  him leave, now done with  her 24 hour rest and  running in 19th place.  That positioning now  starts to mean something, as she  stands  first among the rookies.  Abbie  West is  close in second, and moving  faster than  Keith.

Baker’s average moving speed of 6.9  mph is significantly lower than other contenders.  Sorlie, for example  is 8.2.  I have asked the  tracker folks to create a new category of chart,  average moving speed for the  most recent  24 hours or 100 miles.  That would tell the fans a lot more than speed over the entire race.  If a team’s speed is trending up,  teams  ahead will have a problem.  If its trending down, it will be a long  run to Nome as teams rarely speed up once they start  losing speed.  Baker’s history suggests he moves better  later in the race.  He is not far off the pace, and if he picks up speed on the Yukon he could still be a factor.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Aaron Burmeister claims the Gold

As predicted there has not been much movement today with most teams on their  24 hour rest.   Five teams moved between Ophir and  Cripple  with Aaron Burmeister arriving first and winning the $3000 in gold.  John Baker was among the  five, making a big move through Takotna last night.  How that  tactic pans out won’t be known  until tomorrow when  all the teams are moving again.

Martin Buser left  Nikolai after completing his rest, and is moving well.  Last year   he  lost speed  by blasting out of the starting line to Rohn.  This year he seems to have preserved his speed.  At this point  he seems to be a solid contender for  the top spot.

Other teams who seem to have been moving well before resting were Zirkle,  Sorlie, both Seaveys and of course Jeff King.   King provided a rare glimpse of  how it feels to be on a sled descending  Rainy Pass.  His helmet cam video is posted on Iditarod Insider and is scary to watch.  I did the same trail with  a primitive sled with no brush bow, meaning I didn’t  glance off trees as well as I should have.  That was a  long time ago, but that video brought back intense memories of the  run down, my first ever steep drop on a dog sled.

Most teams, including Katherine Keith, stopped at Takotna to rest. Pictures of the food spread there are easily found on  various media sites.  Meals are made to order, and homemade  pie is always  available.  I don’t know when that tradition started , but there was  a time when the checkpoint  was  located at the Takotna tavern (now closed)  It was an old time place, with a small bar that seated about 6 people, and a larger back room for dancing and card playing.  When I raced,  there was a local guitar player, a guy making sandwiches, and one free beer for each  racer.   I stopped  at -30, and it was hard to leave.

Part of my description of Takotna hospitality was deemed to  racy for publication.  If you bump into me anytime, ask me to tell the story.  It’s a good one, and of course its true.

Tomorrow evening it will be time to pick five teams from which the winner  will emerge, but  because that will be hard to do, it may expand to  8, and I still might be wrong.

The Race Goes On

Wed morning report--   The growing number of scratches (12 as of now) will  focus discussion for a while on the decision made  recently  to use the traditional  Willow start  instead of switching  the trail to Fairbanks to avoid the Alaska Range.   I don’t have enough of the facts  known to the  race organizers  at the time  they made their decision to second guess.  As  one of the people who has made similar decisions for the Kuskokwim 300  for 35 years,  I know such issues are hard to deal with.   It is not a simple as looking for  the best available trail.  There wasn’t going to be unanimous support for either  starting spot this year.

I do know that after the decision was made the weather didn’t  really cooperate.  Warm temperatures race week surely made the trail worse than it had been.  And for many racers the location of the main area of concern moved from one side of the Alaska range to the  other as race day approached.  But one question  still lingers in my mind: knowing full well  the conditions  ahead, why do so many teams still drive such tiny lightweight sleds during the first part of the race?

Because  racers can send out replacement sleds, why not  have a sturdy sled for the tough going and more of a  racer for the rest of the trail?   When Andy  Angstman ran the race in the low snow year of 2007, he used an all aluminum sled  built like a small tank. Such a device was designed to be more or less unbreakable, and  would have been a good choice for this year.  Not only are such sleds harder to break, they provide the racer more protection from obstacles in tough going.

Meanwhile, the race goes on but with a number of folks moving past  Takotna for  their 24 hour  rest, including John Baker.  That makes analysis very difficult.   It will stay that way for  another couple of days as we see how teams fare in their   first big runs after their break.  Naming a leader right now would be difficult, but two guys driving fast teams last night were Jeff King  and Robert Sorlie.   Those fast speeds were recorded during the run from  Nikolai to McGrath, at a time when long runs and short rests  would have made the dogs somewhat weary. It’s a long way to the finish, but both of those teams should be among the top few  at  Nome.

Tonight, as promised, a report on Takotna hospitality.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Team Baker is proving to be solid and strong

As suggested this morning, the list of contenders is starting to materialize as teams  approach Takotna.   The top ten teams on the current list have all earned contender status, and a handful more also deserve watching.   John Baker is certainly a factor with a strong  move up  today, currently  listed as 12th.  A handful of teams back in the pack also could contend including Martin Buser who will  likely regain the lead after doing his 24 hour rest in Nikolai.  Kelly  Maixner also bears watching based on his fast dash to Rohn before taking his rest.   Mike Williams Jr.  is not far off Buser’s  pace, but he is down to 10 dogs.

Katherine Keith is solidly  in the running for rookie of the year, currently in the top 20 and not that far  behind Baker.  Her move out of Nikolai after the obviously grueling run into that village shows her durability.

Sonny Linder was the first team out of Nikolai and also first into McGrath, where he  is doing his 24 hour rest.  Lindner is currently the oldest musher in the race at  64, and many consider him to be a serious contender for the top spot.  He has a previous second place finish, and has gradually improved his finishes in the past few years. His  day in the lead caused me to remember two  Lindner  stories that are worthy of sharing.  

One story involved  the Coldfoot Classic  dog race in 1986 when he and I shared a snowbank  for a few hours during a break.  As most  racers will admit, there are times that are less fun than others, and this one of those moments.   Lindner asked me that day to promise him that if he was still racing dogs after the age of 50 that I would  find him in some checkpoint and shoot him.  Of course I promised and I remind him of that every year around  March 1st.

The other story involves a visit to a bar in Nome after  the All-Alaska Sweepstakes in 1983.  Lindner  had helped  winner Rick Swenson  in the race and I finished back a ways.  We planned to have a couple beers to rehash the race. The young attractive waitress came by and  asked if we were dog racers.  Somebody  said yes, and while looking at Lindner she gushed  “Oh I recognize you, you’re the cute one.”    Guess who got stuck with the tab.

There won’t be a lot of movement tomorrow with a bunch of teams taking their mandatory rest, many at Takotna where the hospitality is unmatched.  Tomorrow’s report  will detail  how hospitality at Takotna has changed from earlier years.

The deck is about to get shuffled...24 hour layovers

Martin Buser’s early  Tuesday arrival in Nikolai is  astounding.    He got there  about  4 ½ hours ahead of Nicholas Petit,  and no one else will be within 6 hours it appears. The next couple of runs will  show whether the frantic pace has taken too much speed out of Buser’s  team.  Recent history  suggests that will be the case. 

The tracker shows  John Baker and Katherine Keith about 40 miles out of Nikolai at  7 am,  which places them in the mid teens in the standings.  It is interesting that the Iditarod has changed the format of the tracker.  It started  by having the teams in order of their bibs, but now it is in the order of placement which makes it a lot easier for fans.   Next they should put numerical position next to each racer.  Spot Trackers are now used for the first time by the Iditarod,  and  the tried and true format used for the trackers in other races was  junked.  This morning  there is a reference to outside interference with the Iditarod website, which has had some technical  issues  from the start of the race.

The Team Baker website also has issues.  No one has figured out how to update the  basic  information from last year’s  site.  Of course,  most have figured out  that the same guy is writing these reports, Myron Angstman,  and obviously  all the dates should read  2014.

Mike Williams Jr.  is currently in the top ten.  He has had a tough  year for training in Akiak on the Kuskokwim.   The last couple of months have been on glare ice, and before that it was only a bit better.  Yet he is running with the front of the pack.  It probably doesn’t hurt that  the trail he is now using is similar to the one he trained on.  Dogs learn to move differently  on ice with a little practice.  My dogs have always  done fairly well on ice, and  poorly in deep snow because of their Kuskokwim training.

Today the teams will start  arriving in Takotna and  the order will be a lot  different than it is right now.  It takes a strong team to keep the current pace of the front runners, rest a few hours in Nikolai and then  drive 75 more mile to Takotna where  a majority of the teams  will take their  24  hour rest.  By tomorrow, predictions start to make a little sense.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Recap of Day 2 on the Trail

Flying home from Anchorage by light plane at 120  miles per hour  I barely beat the  front runners through the Alaska Range.    I don’t keep records  but I  sure don’t recall anyone arriving in Rohn earlier than  Kelly Maixner did today,  and there were several more teams not far behind.  As noted last night, the traveling speed has not been unusually fast but the rest time has been shorter than ever.

Martin Buser rested a bit at Rainy Pass and then blew through Rohn, and has a 19 mile lead over Aily Zirkle at this moment. Both  Team Baker  outfits rested  at Rainy Pass and should be arriving at Rohn shortly.  Interestingly,  Katherine  Keith beat  John Baker into Rainy by 13 minutes.  Of course those minutes are  meaningless at this point, but anyone who expected Katherine to lag far behind is in for a big surprise.  She has had excellent preparation for her first Iditarod, and  has  a good shot at rookie of the year.  She mentioned before the race that in training she would sometimes beat  John home.  A weak team rarely beats a strong team home, but of course John attributed  that to her failure to keep the dogs’ speed under control.  Right now Katherine is the top rookie but there are a bunch of strong rookies in the same vicinity.

As for other rural teams,  Mike Williams Jr. is speeding along and was the third team into Rohn where he rested.  Richie Diehl and  Pete Kaiser left Rainy a bit before the Kotzebue pair.   

News accounts describe rough conditions on the back side of Rainy Pass.  Most years that run is a challenge.  Many of the current bunch of top racers has done the pass  10-20 times or more. They still admit that getting through can be dicey.  In my only run through the pass as a total greenhorn,  I remember dropping onto glare ice at the bottom of the pass on a flat stream that runs toward  Rohn checkpoint.  While glare ice is not great trail, after the pass it seems like a treat  to be on flat going for a bit.  Before the race Pete Kaiser  mentioned  he looks forward to that ice as well, even though he is a skilled racer  with several races in his resume. I don’t remember much of the pass though because my  eyes were closed much of the time.

The  long run to Nikolai from Rohn usually sorts out a handful  of teams who try unsuccessfully to stay with the front runners.  The winner of the Iditarod is almost always among the top ten out of Nikolai, and usually  in the top five.  But in recent years the eventual  winner is rarely the first team to leave. 

2014 Iditarod is well underway

The 2014 Iditarod is well underway, and once again I will be providing race analysis  here on the  teamjohnbaker  website.  This will be my third year providing regular analysis, and I look forward to an interesting race. 

During the first night of the race, familiar patterns  have developed.  Martin Buser is speeding along in front, nearing  Rainy Pass  at 6 am.  Reports from the trail describe very hard packed snow, and  the pace suggests  a very fast trail.   That doesn’t always mean that the dogs are moving at an exceptional speed, sometimes it means that there is little drag and the teams can move longer distances on less rest because  they are not working as hard.  Tracker speeds don’t seem to be unusually high on the front running teams.

Buser’s strategy has worked well for him some years, other years not so well.  Just last year he jumped in front and stayed there for quite a while, but was moving much slower than the top teams which passed him later in the race.

John Baker has usually employed a much more conservative approach to the start of the race.  He rested almost 4 hours at Skwentna leaving in 39th place.  Katherine Keith employed a similar strategy and she has already rested for  more than 5 hours at the same checkpoint after arriving just 18 minutes behind John.

Temperatures have cooled a bit overnight after a very warm day at the  restart in Willow.  Forecasts today call for below freezing temperatures along the trail into the Alaska range.