WHITE MOUNTAIN — There are no running shoes in Iditarod leader John Baker’s dog sled.
With less than an hour lead on one of the sport’s fastest finishers, Baker left on the final 77-mile push for Nome at 12:04 a.m. Ramey Smyth of Willow — a musher known for tugging off his boots and lacing up his sneakers for a thundering finish — was expected to start just 51 minutes later.
Against most teams, an advantage of nearly an hour in White Mountain would be enough, Baker said.
“But when you’re dealing with Ramey, even two hours is not sufficient,” the Kotzebue musher said late Monday afternoon at the beginning of mandatory eight-hour break.
Smyth is the “best in the business” at eating up your lead, Baker said.
The musher arrived on the frozen Fish River greeted by dozens of villagers and race volunteers. A boy in camouflage pants and rubber boots held an autograph pen and a baseball. Posters lined the checkpoint in English and Inupiaq. “Kiita. John Baker. Ariiga!”
Residents of the Kawerak village said it’s a little like saying, “lets go, John Baker, holy cow!”
“I’m happy that an Eskimo is in the front,’ said Robert Lincoln, 31. The musher autographed his poster — “’Playmaker’ Baker” — before eating dinner.
But Iditarod experts weren’t counting Smyth out.
The Willow musher is deadly late in the race, said race judge John Anderson, who has seen the Smyth pull his sneakers out as early as White Mountain.
By taking short rests with his endurance team, Baker has been pressing Smyth to take short rests, Anderson said. “We’ll see what kind of gas he’s got left in the tank.”
Earlier in the day, Baker pulled onto the frozen desert of the Golvin Bay, just outside of the Inupiat village of Golovin, as Smyth appeared to be about seven miles behind.
Normally the jaunt from Golovin to White Mountain is just 18 miles, but Anderson said unsafe conditions – possibly overflow – forced trail markers to wind the route around the bay. The curve added maybe three miles to the race, said Bruce Lee, a race veteran and Iditarod Insider analyst.
Baker arrived at 4:03 p.m., but said he’d hoped to hit the checkpoint earlier. Maybe 2 or 2:30 p.m.
“Seems like I’m just tired,” he said.
Meantime, Lee said Smyth posted an impressive run into White Mountain, crossing pack ice and climbing punishing hills — one is called Little McKinley — on little rest.
Smyth called the trip “the toughest run I’ve ever done.”
“Big hills, snow. Wind. Lots of hard work,” he said.
Smyth has won the award for the fastest times from Safety to Nome, the last step of the race, in seven Iditarods and there’s more toil ahead if the 35-year-old hopes to catch Baker.
“There’s still one-fifteenth of the race left,” he said.
The White Mountain checkpoint is unlike any other, and not just because race officials have performed musher drug-testing here the past two years.
Mushers must stay in the village eight hours, meaning there’s no need to worry about the competition sneaking back on the trail while you sleep. With such a short run to the finish line, it’s also usually the beginning of a victory lap west along the Norton Sound.
When Mackey arrived last year, his fourth-straight victory was all but assured.
Not this time.
Former Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey watched from the sidelines Monday in White Mountain after nearly cutting his finger off in a knife accident earlier in the race. Seavey held his bandaged right hand against his chest under his jacket.
Who will win?
“I would be willing to tell you if I could tell,” he said.
Baker’s team is more well-rested, he said. Smyth only stayed two and a half hours in Koyuk on his way to White Mountain, Seavey said. Typically the musher gets his speed from recharging his dogs with decent rest.
That said, Smyth has kept pace with Baker despite shorter stays at checkpoints than he might prefer.
“Eight hours (in White Mountain) is going to help them both tremendously,” Seavey said, but it could be even more beneficial to Smyth.
As the mushers rested their teams in White Mountain, straw blew in the cold breeze and Baker’s team of 11 coastal huskies stood, barking. Their boss pulled frozen meat from a sack labeled Hi-Pro.
“God, his dogs look good,” a checker said.
Villagers snapped camera phone pictures with bare hands. This Iditarod has been so “warm” by Alaska standards that gloves are sometimes optional.
After tending to his team, Smyth walked to Baker and shook his hand. Their first words disappeared into the wind. The pair are reserved and soft-spoken at checkpoints compared to outspoken four-time defending champion Lance Mackey.
“… I wish I had your knowledge,” Smyth told Baker before returning to his team.
An Iditarod win today would be the first for either man.
Baker sat in the checkpoint dining room and stabbed a square of French toast with his knife. His sister passed a paper bowl of dense Eskimo salad — dried caribou, ooogruk (seal), muktuk, whitefish, carrots and cranberries — around the table.
Seavey stood nearby, talking over the final moments of the Iditarod with Baker.
While Baker had a 50-minute lead, Smyth will race him for it, Seavey said. “You can’t be screwing around, that’s for sure.”
Earlier, Baker said his team has the speed to match the sprinter’s pace for much of the remaining trail.
“He’ll have a real boost of speed. A lot more than I can come up with,” Baker said. “(But) I don’t know for how long.”