Thursday, March 12, 2015

Myron's Corner 3-11-15 GPS Tracker Withdrawls

Usually by this stage of the Iditarod some trends have developed  which would enable a seasoned analyst to  pick out some early leaders.  Not this year.  A jammed  pack of racers toward the front makes picking the leaders tough, and that is made worse by the fact that some faster moving teams are a bit back of the leaders by still well within range.
The Seaveys are  in front as of this writing, but neither has taken control of the race.  In fact the next racer in line Aaron Burmeister has a higher average traveling speed,  which means he has gotten to the same spot in the race as the Seaveys with more rest.  Several other teams  are showing  faster traveling speeds today,  among them are Jeff King, Thomas Waerner, Pete Kaiser, Dee Jonrowe, Nathan Schroeder and Ken Anderson.
Complicating any prognostication at this point is the staggered start and various mandatory rests which must be taken. Until those rests are completed, comparisons of location are deceptive.  For example Pete Kaiser started late in the field and has about a two hour handicap over early starters  which will be given back to him during his 24 hour layover.
Today the GPS tracker went on the blink for a couple of hours,  introducing  recent Iditarod fans to the situation faced   by fans in the early years of the race when reports were often  very old by the time they reached rural Alaska.  I used to call  Iditarod headquarters  for first hand updates, but they were sometimes outdated as well.  Later I learned to tell them I was from the press, so that I would get the best information possible.  I would say  “This is Randall Simpson from the New York Times”, and that would usually get me the supervisor.  Later on when the fax was introduced, I got on the every hour fax list from headquarters, and then all of the best race fans in Bethel would call me for an update.  Of course the tracker has changed all of that,  and  going two hours without an update is a weird form of torture for the hard core fan.

Myron's Corner 3-11-15The Sass Disqualification

The Brent Sass disqualification is major news and not just because it removes a serious contender from the race.  A larger issue is why Iditarod has such a rule in the first place.
Two way electronic communication is not allowed on the race.  The discussion concerns whether such communication gives an advantage to some racers who receive such information.  Not having raced in the cell phone era I can only speculate but I assume some small advantage can be gained when cell phone service is available.  That of course is only part of the time usually near villages.   A racer could learn what the competition is doing and also weather or trail information.
Reliable sources have told me that a significant number of racers used cellphones in recent years even though they were banned.  They did so without penalty apparently.  This year the race officials announced they would harshly enforce the rule and Sass is the first victim.  There are likely other devices on the trail but Sass used his openly as a music device forgetting that it was capable of texting with Wi-Fi in the checkpoint if such was available.  One of the problems with this rule is the issue of detection.  Cell phones could be buried deeply in a musher’s equipment and hard to detect.  I suspect some racers are reconsidering their use of cell phones today.
Iditarod should use this opportunity to revisit the rule.  Cell phones are everywhere and what is the harm in allowing racers to carry them?  Keeping them charged must be a problem as well as finding a signal but racers use other modern methods to do better in the race.  Improved sleds, clothing, dog gear, food,  GPS trackers,  all of these would have given pause to old time racers but each improvement was readily embraced by the racers.
No one likes to see a good racer sent home in mid race.  With a huge mob of supporters in the Fairbanks area one can only imagine the anguish Sass fans share today.  He recently raced in the Kuskokwim 300 and made lots of fans in the Bethel area as well.  Incidentally that race allows cell phones and no one has suggested it has impacted competition.
Meanwhile a closely stacked field is making its way down the Yukon River.  More on that aspect of the race later.

Myron’s Corner 3-10-15 – Buser Conserves

Yesterday marked the start of the 2015 Iditarod, this year from Fairbanks where cold and snow was a dramatic departure from the conditions that have plagued Alaska this winter.  In this second Fairbanks start, the teams will encounter a much flatter trail that follows a bunch of rivers before reaching Kaltag and the run to the coast.
I have been asked to provide analysis once again, free to the many readers who follow these pages. Some have said they would gladly pay two or three times as much for the enlightened commentary featured here.  For example,
last year I declared Jeff King the winner hours before he withdrew from the race near the Safety checkpoint.  Where else could a reader find analysis like that?
One reader did express her thoughts about the page at a recent book signing for the  recently released “Iditarod, The First Ten Years”    A nice lady from Holland looked at my name tag and said “Myron Angstman, you are famous in Holland”  Of course I asked her why, and she responded that there are many Iditarod fans who read my stuff in her homeland.
Incidentally,  a shameless plug for that book seems appropriate at this point.  Assembled by a group of volunteers from the early years of the race, the book captures the event in a thick coffee table book, packed with short stories and tons of artwork. Proceeds from the book go back to the racers with no payment to the contributors.  You can read about the book on the
facebook page by that name, where you can also find out how to order it.  A sample can be found on my webpage, linked below.
Now, on to analysis.  Well not really, because no analysis is possible at this stage of the race.  The first day is spent  trying  survive the spectacle of the start, with many teams passing,  lots of viewers along the trail, and excited dogs.  By Tuesday  early trends emerge, and usually a there are a few teams in positions that surprise us computer racers.
One early observation that is worth noting.  Martin Buser started toward the front of the pack with bib number four, and jumped out in front in the early going.  Before the race he announced he would not be the rabbit this year,
as he has been in recent years.  Tonight he pulled over for a rest, and others have jumped in front so maybe he means it.  Being the rabbit has not worked out for Martin, or for that matter most teams who have tried it over
the years. Early exertion when the dogs are excited often leaves often leads to a slower pace later on, and the later on involves hundreds of miles. That allows a  steadier paced team to catch and pass the fast starting team in most cases.
This year my reports will once again focus teams from rural Alaska. Bush Alaska is a huge chunk of country with a small population that is well connected despite the distances involved.  Kotzebue, Nome and Bethel and the smaller villages surrounding them compete against each other in sports and other activities, but when it comes to competing against folks from elsewhere,  there is a common bond.   You will detect a bias here for those teams for whom going to town means hopping a jet bound for Anchorage.
Decent racing weather is predicted  for the next few days after a ceremonial start in Anchorage that nearly got rained on. Those watching on TV or computer likely saw what looked like nice weather in Anchorage, but a few hours before the start it was pouring rain with low clouds and  wind.  The snow that was trucked in was mainly slush, but was just enough to get the teams out of town with their important cargo.  Each team carried a rider who paid for the thrill of riding for a few miles.  That program earns a nice sum of money for the race.
Tonight, we’ll look at some of the early movers in the race and try to make some sense of their strategy.