Iditarod front-runners put pedal to mettle

Anchorage Daily NewsMarch 6, 2012 

NIKOLAI -- Iditarod all-star DeeDee Jonrowe cleared the treacherous Alaska Range fully loaded Tuesday, every dog healthy and hungry to run. The kind of rare fortune that, in a normal year, would sling you to the front of the pack.

Instead, Jonrowe found herself parked along the frozen river here Tuesday, trailing the leaders by more than four hours.

Former Iditarod champion Martin Buser, a speed specialist known for breaking away early in the race, says his dogs have been making "record-type runs" ever since leaving Willow. He's not even in the same zip code as the lead dogs.

"I'm in like, 40th place," Buser said.

There isn't just one team that's fast and lucky this year. There are a dozen. With an uncharacteristically gentle trail and unprecedented lack of race-ending mishaps, top teams have found themselves on equal footing with two-thirds of the trail ahead of them. The result, mushers say, is a competition as cutthroat and aggressive as ever.

"People think that maybe with the (speed) record being broken last year, that you've got to go so much harder just to do well," said Pete Kaiser, a 24-year-old Bethel racer who finished eighth last year.

By Tuesday night, nobody had quit the Iditarod and everyone was to Rohn or beyond. That's the sign of easy trail conditions and the harbinger of a battle at the finish, said Sebastian Schnuelle, who placed sixth in the 2011 Iditarod and is reporting on the race this year as he snowmachines down the trail.

For now, it's too early in the race to obsess over the standings. It may take days to separate the tortoises from the hares.

Aliy Zirkle, 41, was the first to reach this Athabascan village of 100 people Tuesday and first to leave. And she blasted through McGrath still in first place Tuesday night.

Still, the Two Rivers musher says her first-place standing was mere happenstance. She wasn't really in front, she said.

The Iditarod start is staggered, with a single musher leaving every two minutes. That means that mushers who draw a late starting order are at a disadvantage early in the race.

"You have to realize that I started No. 14," said Zirkle, who says she is merely sticking to her race plan. "I'm two hours ahead of all those in the 50s and 60s, so I'm not really ahead if you look at it that way.

Buser, meantime, said he's grappling with the opposite problem.

He drew bib No. 41. His son Rohn drew No. 62. "That was a bit of a drawback on this Iditarod, I think," Martin said.

"The trail got progressively worse and we had snow, and snow and snow, and so we had to jump on the bandwagon and (get) short rest and get up here a little bit faster than we wanted," he said.

Nikolai is less than a third of the way to Nome into the 975-mile trek. Success isn't measured by the minutes here, Zirkle said.

"(What counts) is if you can appropriately rest your team, and that they look good, so they can keep going down the trail," she said.

Zirkle, whose team includes 10 of the tiny huskies that placed second with her husband Allen Moore in the recent Yukon Quest, said she wasn't bothered by recent snowfall on the trail. The team, including Iditarod veterans like Boondocks and Scruggs, made a relatively uneventful pass through the famously bumpy Farewell Burn.

"They were motoring last night. About nine, nine and a half miles an hour," Zirkle said.

Other top mushers haven't been so lucky.

'LIKE JORDAN OUT OF RETIREMENT'

"I had to carry a dog down the (Dalzell Gorge) and this run I had to carry a dog about 70 miles," said Yukon Quest champion Hugh Neff. Neff said he dropped one of the dogs, Ellsworth, but planned to keep another, Rocky, for the trek to McGrath.

A jovial also-ran in mushing's major races until his Quest victory this year, Neff sipped a Coke in the village schoolhouse, eyes puffy with sleep. What were the other front-runners up to, he asked. Had Lance Mackey, his friendly rival and a four-time champion, left the checkpoint?

Mackey is among at least a dozen mushers contending for a win this year, Neff said. "Usually it's been the Lance show, but this year, even Lance is trying to hang with (2011 champ John Baker.) And Aliy's got a really outstanding outfit."

Neff welcomed the return of one top musher, four-time winner Jeff King, in particular. The Denali musher was allegedly retired from the Iditarod but could once again claim the crown, Neff said.

"It's like getting Jordan to come back out of retirement," Neff said.

"Everybody talks about Lance being the legend. But I think Lance's record pales in comparison to what Jeff has accomplished in his career, as far as victories in all the racing scene, not just the Iditarod."

Back at the checkpoint, mushers poured scalding water into buckets to melt their dog food and rubbed ointment on paws as they readied for the roughly 48-mile run to McGrath. Ramey Smyth, a Willow sprinter who finished second last year, said the inches of fresh, loose powder falling on the trail may slow the teams.

"There's more resistance. Every step (the dogs) take is harder, so effectively the race is longer," he said.

FOLLOW YOUR GAME PLAN

Not all the front-runners are racing to win.

"It's really important for everyone to know what their goals are," said Knik 200 winner Jake Berkowitz, 25. "Teams that say that they're here to win and are not championship caliber ... end up hurting their teams in the long run."

"Our goal is top 10," Berkowitz said.

So who is best equipped to win in a field full of dog-racing heavyweights? The young musher nodded to his friend John Baker's sled, where the defending champion was preparing to leave a few minutes behind Zirkle.

Baker stepped on his runners -- akin to putting the car in "drive" -- then backed away. He paced the snow, watching his dogs.

Sonar, a member of Baker's 2011 roster, was still eating a shard of frozen kibble, he said. No good leaving until the dog finished its meal.

"I'll be a gentleman and wait," Baker said.

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