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.