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.