Leaders take 24-hour rest, worry about snow

March 11, 2009 

All was quiet along the Iditarod Trail today as most of the top teams settled in for a day's rest in Interior communities along or near the Kuskokwim River.

A few back-of-the-pack mushers were still making their way toward the Interior village of Nikolai, but the contenders for victory were bedded down in Takota or McGrath.

Iditarod race rules require one 24-hour stop during the 1,000 mile race from Anchorage to Nome.

Some mushers had been expected to try to push at least to the Gold Rush ghost town of Iditarod halfway through the 1,000-mile race before taking that break this year. But deep snow put the kibosh on those plans.

"Snow, snow, snow is the name of the game here," former racer Bruce Lee reported from Takotna. "Many mushers have voiced the hope to go to Iditarod for their 24-hour layover, but trail conditions don't look good for that at this time.

"It's snowing and blowing along the trail between Takotna and Ophir. The trail conditions from there on to Iditarod don't seem much better, with a thin crust of set-up snow as a trail foundation, with soft deep snow underneath. There is reported to be two and a half feet of fresh snow that covers the trail into Iditarod that hasn't been re-broken since the trail was first put in."

As morning broke, Lee speculated that someone might gamble on a break out of Takotna to -- if nothing else -- grab the halfway prize of $3,000 in gold nuggets put up by a race sponsor.

By midday, though, no one had moved and race leaders Aaron Burmeister, Hugh Neff, Sebastian Schnuelle, Lance Mackey, Jeff King, Mitch Seavey, Paul Gebhardt and Bjornar Andersen were already about halfway through their mandatory rest stops.

Most of those names are familiar to Iditarod fans.

Both the Mackeys and the Seaveys are Iditarod institutions. Mackey of Fairbanks is the two-time defending champ. His father, Dick, won the race in the Iditarod's only photo finish back in 1978, and his half-brother, Rick, won the race in 1983.

A 2004 Iditarod champ from Sterling, Seavey is the son of Dan, who finished third in the very first Iditarod in 1973 and has been involved with the race ever since.

King from Denali Park is a four-time Iditarod champ. Gebhardt from Kasilof is a two-time runner-up. And Andersen carries the banner for Team Norway, which rocked Alaska with victories in 2003 and 2005 with Robert Sorlie on the sled runners. Until Sorlie and his posse showed up on the Iditarod Trail, foreign mushers had never come close to victory.

Sorlie showed they could win, and his protege Andersen, a fourth-place finisher as a rookie in 2005, is clearly in the hunt this year.

In fact, of all the mushers parked in Takotna today, the least-known might have been those at the very front -- Burmeister, Neff and Schnuelle -- even though two of them are just coming off a record run in Alaska's other 1,000-mile sled-dog marathon.

Schnuelle, a German emigre who now makes his home in Whitehorse, Yukon, won the Yukon Quest in record time when he arrived in Fairbanks from Whitehorse on Feb. 24.

Neff lives just across the border from Schnuelle in Skagway but spends a lot of his time at the Laughing Eyes Kennel of girlfriend Tamra Reynolds at Annie Lake in the Yukon. He trailed Schnuelle by just four minutes.

Neff likely would have won except for a two-hour penalty assessed for letting his team run down an Interior Alaska road for a few miles instead of directing it immediately back onto an adjacent trail. Some said the severe penalty he was assessed might have had something to do with his nickname, Huge Mess.

He got tagged with that monicker after a number of Quest and Iditarod races in which he let his team go out too fast and then fall apart, much the way the hare suffers in the Aesop fable "The Tortoise and the Hare."

Neff's team again went out fast in the Quest this year, but this time it didn't falter. And so far in the Iditarod, there is no sign it is fading.

Schnuelle, meanwhile, is not known for going out fast. A top-10 finisher in the Iditarod for the first time last year, he has run his previous four races from a conservative position behind the leaders. He happens to have an American girlfriend, Libby Riddles, who knows a thing or two about running the race in this manner.

Riddles came from behind to become the first woman to win the Iditarod in 1985. She snatched that victory with a fearless drive through a Bering Sea storm that vaulted the then-fledgling Iditarod onto the world stage.

Aaron Burmeister was at the time a boy in Nome who watched the finish. Nine years later, at the age 19, he ran his first Iditarod. Ten more would follow, but until this year the man who now calls Nenana home has never flirted with victory. His best finish was 13th in 2007.

But he comes from a family of racers. His brother, Noah, is a former stock-car driver, and his father, Richard, raced cars, too. Both Noah and Richard are veterans of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, too.

At this point, though, being in first doesn't mean much.

There is still a lot of racing left to be done, and some of teams resting just behind the leaders in McGrath can't be counted out. Ken Anderson from Fairbanks, three-time Quest champ Hans Gatt from Whitehorse, past Iditarod runner-up Ed Iten from Kotzebue, and five-time champ Rick Swenson from Two Rivers all appeared to be doing their 24-hour stops there, only 20 miles back down the trail from Takotna.

They could quickly rejoin the lead pack when racing resumes.

And there's no telling how things could bunch up on account of the weather.

Lee reported Iditarod trailbreakers were just heading out of Takotna on snowmobiles today to repack the 180 miles of trail across the vast nothingness between there and the tiny village of Shageluk.

How firmly the trails sets up behind them -- if it sets up at all -- could play a big role in what happens next.

Deep, soft snow makes for slow, hard going that has cost more than one front-running team the race over the years.

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