Jon Little: Four-way hunt for first at Unalakleet

March 14, 2010 

There’s a four-way race to win the 2010 Iditarod, and it is tough to determine which team has the advantage as they rest at Unalakleet.

Lance Mackey was the first in, by a margin of three hours over his next closest rival, Jeff King. Normally, that would almost seal a convincing lead at this late stage. But since Mackey’s dogs ran close to 19 hours without a rest to gain that advantage, he probably is using that three hour padding to let the dogs sleep. King and Neff’s dogs ran just as slow as Mackey’s getting to Unalakleet, so it remains to be seen which team has that special leader or deep reserve of energy to get off the straw at Unalakleet and drive on. And, flying under the radar – at least in today’s headlines pitting King vs. Mackey – is Hans Gatt, who is maintaining superior speed, though four hours off Mackey’s pace.

Gatt is the most intriguing to me. He’s got a deficit to make up, but also the dog power and know-how to overcome it.

Gatt’s mission now will be to keep going faster than the others and most likely blow through Shaktoolik and run straight to Koyuk – a move pioneered about seven years ago by Team Norway that has become just about commonplace among the front teams. Mackey and Neff, and possibly King, might try the same tactic, but Gatt could close lots of ground on them if he maintains his speed. Gatt’s approach has been to limit the gargantuan runs. He camped for three or four hours on the trail, perhaps at Tripod Flats cabin, on the way to Unalakleet, and still his run time was only two hours slower from Kaltag.

The way I see it, the rest of the field is too far back to move into the lead, unless the weather changes and forces the leaders to pull over, which is not in the forecast. There’s still a chance that one of the teams that pulled over at Old Woman cabin will blow through Unalakleet and run straight to Shaktoolik, or some variation of that. It has never been done, but mushers have talked about such a stunt over the last couple of years.

Even so, it’s impressive to see John Baker cruise his way securely back into the top 10. He could yet have a top five finish, and it shows the depth and ability of his dog team that he came back from his misfortune approaching the halfway point at Cripple. That’s where Baker, leading the race and tired in the middle of the night, became confused and thought he had missed the Iditarod trail. He camped about three miles shy of Cripple for five hours, essentially handing those hours to his competition.

Likewise, Sonny Lindner, 60, is having a downright impressive run. Lindner, the winner of the inaugural Yukon Quest, has a background decades long in the sport; there’s a photo hanging in the Alaska Airlines waiting room in Nome showing a young Lindner posing with a young Rick Swenson back in the day.

And Gerry Willomitzer, 39, who learned his skills running the Quest and has shifted to Iditarod in the last couple of years, is on a pace for a top 10 finish – his highest by far. Willomitzer, and the others, are quality competitors and have excellent dog care.

The trail The trail ahead is hilly, much steeper than many people suspect. The teams will follow the sea ice for a few miles then head into the Blueberry Hills, where the trail soon climbs like a ladder to the ridge peaks running alongside the majestic Bering Sea Coast. The few from the trail is breath-taking, and even an exhausted dog driver hunting for a win will smile as he takes in the ocean horizon to his left and the rippled, spruce-dotted hillsides rolling away to his right. There’s an abrupt but easy chute almost straight downhill to the coast again, followed by a long, often cold and windy and icy run along a frozen sand spit to the wind-blasted but welcoming village of Shaktoolik.

Rookie roundup Dan Kaduce, into Kaltag with 14 dogs and a fast run time under 4 hours from Nulato, is in the driver’s seat for rookie of the year honors, whether he’s even seeking that award or just running his team to its best ability. Kaduce keeps a kennel of speedy, shorter haired dogs, but knows just how to manage them in cold weather. He lives and trains around Fairbanks. He is just ahead of Mike Williams Jr., of Aniak, but moving considerably faster, not just than Williams, but faster than anyone around him. Michelle Phillips and Pete Kaiser are having good races as well, but are probably too far behind Kaduce to overtake him before Nome. Phillips might.


Jon Little, a journalist for 20 years and a veteran of five Iditarods, is providing Iditarod commentary on the Check Point blog, hosted by Dr. Tim's Pet Food Co. at http://drtims.com/blog

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