How John Baker finally won the Iditarod

March 15, 2011 

NOME -- Willow musher Ramey Smyth arrived at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race finish line Tuesday morning in Nome in record time. On his birthday. With just five hours of sleep in the previous six days.

This is what Iditarod legends are made of. And it still wasn't enough to beat John Baker.

The Inupiaq musher outraced Smyth to the burled arch by more than an hour to become the first Alaska Native champion in 35 years. A siren and whirling police lights signaled his arrival. A drumbeat by the Yup'ik band Pamyua and seal calls from fans greeted him at the finish at 9:46 a.m.

"Villages all over Alaska are celebrating," said Mike Williams, an Iditarod veteran and former chairman of the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council who hopes the Kotzebue musher's win spurs more rural Alaskans to adopt the sport.

Baker's time of eight days, 18 hours, 46 minutes, 39 seconds sliced three hours from the 2002 speed record held by Martin Buser of Big Lake -- a record set on the race's northern route, traditionally thought to be faster. This year's Iditarod was run on the southern route.

The win also ended the chain of four victories in a row by Fairbanks musher Lance Mackey, whose dwindling, seven-dog team trailed in 16th place Tuesday night.

Long a contender, Baker accumulated 11 top-10 finishes in his 15 previous Iditarods.

"I didn't figure I had the race for sure. I didn't allow myself to think like that," Baker said. "I just needed to take care of my own business. Take care of running the dogs. Make sure that they could arrive here in the quickest possible way and being fair with them, not asking too much of them.

"If I can do that, then I didn't feel we would have any problems. And that's the way it worked out," he said.

Their breath steaming, Baker's dogs sat in the Nome snow, licking their feet. Baker and Williams hugged. An Anchorage automobile dealership gave the winning musher a new Dodge pickup to match his $50,400 first-place paycheck.

Making history was a bonus, Baker said.

"I didn't have any thoughts about breaking the record. That dawned on me last night or this morning," he said, flanked by his two leaders.

Brown-eyed Snickers and blue-eyed Velvet guided the team almost all 1,000 miles to Nome. They looked at the Front Street crowd with heavy lids as the musher talked, yellow roses around their necks.

STRONG, STEADY

You learned the story of John Baker's Iditarod win in kindergarten, said seven-time finisher and Iditarod Insider analyst Bruce Lee.

It's called "The Tortoise and the Hare."

Baker's dogs are strong and steady, not fast and flashy, he said. "What John did actually proved what (five-time champion) Rick Swenson said years and years ago" -- that trapline-type dogs capable of churning out endless 7, 8 or 9 mph runs could prevail.

Chatanika musher Dan Kaduce, last year's rookie of the year, was in Nome to watch his wife, Jodi Bailey, in her first Iditarod. Baker was the musher best able to stick to his own schedule, Kaduce said.

"His rests were long," Kaduce said. "He never had to make the huge push to catch up," he said.

Once Baker assumed control, speedy teams that rely on decent rest to recharge suddenly had to cut their breaks short to gain ground.

SMYTH'S MOVE

Baker led Smyth by more than three and a half hours in the coastal village of Unalakleet, where the race turns north along Norton Sound.

Smyth made his move to narrow the lead with a grinding, almost 200-mile push to White Mountain that included only a short two-hour rest in Koyuk and got him within 51 minutes. (Baker, meantime, rested about six hours over the same stretch.)

It was an impressive run, said Lee, the Iditarod Insider analyst -- maybe even more impressive than Lance Mackey's 130-mile marathon from Nulato to Unalakleet to steal the lead from Jeff King last year.

But fast teams need rest to stay fast. And while Baker had the luxury of recharging, Smyth had to press on.

"Toughest run I've ever done," he said in White Mountain. "Big hills, snow, wind."

Baker knew the 36-year-old musher couldn't run a fast team on short rest forever.

"I was curious ... how long he could continue to do that," Baker said.

"I was fortunate that I was getting to rest the dogs exactly as I had planned," he said.

NOT A CHANCE

Baker pulled away from Smyth on Tuesday morning's 55-mile run from White Mountain to Safety that eliminated Smyth's chances of sprinting past him on the 22-mile stretch between Safety and Nome, a portion of the race Smyth dominates with regularity.

"When I saw his time, how quickly he got to Safety, I knew there was not a chance," Smyth said. "He told me he had the best run of the whole race leaving White Mountain -- that he had to stand on the track going uphill. That's how strong his dogs were."

Smyth never saw Baker ahead of him in those final miles of trail. Baker never saw Smyth, either.

"I did see a light once or twice, but I think it was snowmachines," Baker said.

Instead of the down-to-the-wire finish anticipated only a day earlier, Front Street belonged to Baker -- and Baker alone.

In many ways, Baker's dog team was even stronger last year, he said, when he held a promising lead until a bout of indecision cost perhaps five hours on the trail.

"I've always said that I wouldn't want to race against this team, because they're really steady," he said.

CLEAR SKIES, CLEAR TRAIL

Pleasant weather, despite bouts of wind that burned Baker's face red, fueled the record pace.

Cloudless skies -- chalked with alien green northern lights in Takotna -- followed the race from Willow to Nome. Days were sunny enough for villagers to snap camera phone pictures with bare hands but not hot enough to overheat dog teams on mid-day runs.

On hard, fast trail, mushers pushed the pace early. As illness and injury unraveled Mackey's team, challengers saw the chance for a career-making win.

"There's a couple of really strong teams willing to put it all out on the line -- Ramey's team and (third-place finisher Hans Gatt's) team and then my team," Baker said of this year's record speed. "They were pushed really hard and that's what's going to happen when you have that kind of competition."

The musher's family, who often wear matching black "Team Baker" gear, watched him arrive in the chute shortly after sunrise.

Finally, they could breathe. John had done it.

"It was really surreal, I guess is the word: 'Is it really happening?' " Baker's brother Andy said, recalling the feeling. He flew out to White Mountain and Unalakleet to meet John, and the pair would talk quietly in the cold, Baker's dog team sleeping on beds of straw.

With his thick-furred coastal dogs born and trained above the Arctic Circle, Baker is the first musher off the road system to win in decades.

BARKING TO LEAVE

After pausing for photos and a quick interview in the Iditarod finish chute, second-place Smyth jogged down Front Street with his hand on a jacketed dog named Zeus. He disappeared behind a holding area for dog teams, roped off behind a line of hulking steel shipping containers.

Smyth's wife, Rebecca -- who is considering a future Iditarod run of her own -- walked with the couple's children, 6-month-old Banyan and Ava, 4.

Smyth entered the Iditarod aiming to win, he said. He just didn't know that posting the second-fastest time in history wouldn't be enough.

"It's a little hard not to win," he said. "But there's no person in this world that I'd rather be beaten by, if I came in second, than John.'

As he talked, someone wished Smyth a happy birthday.

When was it?

"Today, I guess," Smyth said.

It's hard to think straight when you've slept less than an hour a day for almost a week.

"About the least sleep I've gotten in any Iditarod," said Smyth, who's finished 17 of them.

Rushing to keep up with Baker's endurance team, Smyth said he's proud he "gave everything I had" but figures he made tactical errors such as resting too little or too much at certain checkpoints. At the end of the race, the plastic on his sled runners was ill-suited to the icy, grainy snow, slowing him.

As early as the ghost town checkpoint of Iditarod -- about halfway through the raise -- Baker's eager dog team looked well-positioned for a win.

"At Iditarod I saw that John's dogs were barking to go and nobody else's were," Smyth said. "He's just done 120-mile run. His dogs are barking to leave. He's trying to put his pants on, and they're trying to pull the hook.

"They didn't even wait for him to tell them to go, they were just going to go to Nome without him.

Scenes from Nome following John Baker's Iditarod 39 championship.


Beth Bragg in Anchorage contributed to this story.

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