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. 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 mademorning to check on any teams not in checkpoints. That doesn’t make the night any shorter for the ones that are out there.