UPDATE 10 p.m. MONDAY:
Scott Janssen, the Mushing Mortician, scratched Monday night in Rainy Pass.
Janssen reached Rainy Pass in 38th place at 3:27 p.m. He stayed for nearly four hours and dropped one of his 16 dogs before leaving. But he returned to the checkpoint and called it quits at 10:22 p.m.
UPDATE 8 p.m. MONDAY:
Paul Gebhardt and Aliy Zirkle roared past Rohn around 7:30 p.m., grabbing the Iditarod lead from fast-charging Martin Buser, who is taking his mandatory 24-hour layover in Rohn.
Gebhardt and Zirkle wasted no time at the cabin that serves as the first checkpoint on the other side of the Alaska Range.
Gebhardt checked in at 7:15 and left at 7:26. Zirkle, last year’s runner-up, arrived at 7:18 and departed at 7:30.
Both had 15 dogs in harness.
Buser, a four-time champion, shook up the Iditarod world with his choices Monday.
After making the 169-mile run from Willow to Rohn without stopping for a prolonged break, he decided to take his 24-hour layover there. The strategy — running so far so fast, and then taking such an early 24-hour layover — is unprecedented.
UPDATE 6 p.m. MONDAY:
Lance Mackey is the third musher to make it to Rohn on the other side of the Alaska Range.
Mackey arrived at 5:23 p.m., joining Martin Buser and Matt Failor. Buser has been at the checkpoint since 9:53 a.m.; Failor has been there since 2:11 p.m.
Of the three, Buser owns the fastest time on the run to Rohn from Rainy Pass. He did it in 4 hours, 13 minutes; Mackey did it in 4:26 and Failor in 5:01.
Though it’s just the three of them in Rohn for now, the tiny group represents eight race Iditarod championships. Buser and Mackey are both four-time champs.
About two dozen mushers are en route to Rohn, including Brent Sass of Eureka, a top Yukon Quest musher who is down to 13 dogs after leaving three behind in Rainy Pass.
UPDATE 3:30 p.m. MONDAY:
Defending champion/birthday boy Dallas Seavey is down to 14 dogs.
Seavey, who turned 26 Monday, dropped two dogs before leaving Finger Lake at 10 a.m. He reached Rainy Pass at 1:28 p.m.
Seavey likes to start conservatively and push the pace later, a method that he says allows him to “build a monster” that has plenty of power left for the final one-third of the race.
Last year Seavey didn’t drop a dog until McGrath. He finished with nine dogs in harness.
UPDATE 2:45 p.m. MONDAY:
It’s one thing to believe that Martin Buser and his dogs did a single 169-mile run from Willow to Rohn in little less than 20 hours, but it’s something else to swallow the fact that his B team is sitting right there next to him.
With the most challenging part of the trail behind him, Matt Failor of Big Lake set down his snow hook in Rohn around 2 p.m. this afternoon. Believe it or not, the 29-year-old dog handler for Happy Trails Kennels is currently resting in second place behind his boss and race leader, Mr. Buser, who arrived there earlier this morning at 9:53 a.m.
As a rookie last year, Failor finished 47th with a team of yearlings that came from Buser’s Happy Trails Kennels. This year Failor still considers the team yearlings: “I am looking forward to training Martin’s yearling team and traveling with them along the Iditarod Trail to Nome,” he wrote. It’s apparent, however, that Failor is doing more than just camping. He seems knows the strength of his yearlings better this year than last year — so well that he is playing his cards less conservatively.
For the next few hours, Failor will be the only musher who has gotten the chance to speak to Buser since at least Finger Lake, where the 54-year-old stayed for a brief 26 minutes.
But pretty soon they’ll have company — and we might have ourselves a new race leader.
A pack of five mostly veteran mushers are headed up and over Rainy Pass, the highest point in the Iditarod with an elevation of 3,000 feet, and on their way down to Rohn. In that pack are the following drivers: Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof, Lance Mackey of Fairbanks, Jason Mackey of Wasilla, Aaron Burmeister of Nome and Jessie Royer of Fairbanks.
Other than Failor, the rest of the field at this point is able to only speculate whether or not Buser’s plan is going to work out in the long run. According to retired Iditarod veteran Joe Runyan, who is on the trail and blogging for Iditarod.com, no musher has ever attempted Willow to Rohn in a single run.
Here’s what Kotzebue’s John Baker told the ADN’s Kyle Hopkins at Finger Lake: “My buddy Martin is doing something different, which is neat to see. But I can only watch and hope for the best for them and do what I can do to take care of my team.
“If anybody’s going to do that, he has the team for it,” Baker added. “He’ll probably want to take a huge break in Rohn and try to stay in front of us.
“He wants to win. I love that about him.”
Hopkins asked Baker if maybe this was an attempt to make a big move early on the trail rather than along the coast.
“Well, I guess we would be the fools if it got, uh, some kind of weather between he and us,” Baker responded. “He would be laughing all the way to Nome.”
UPDATE 11 a.m. MONDAY:
Martin Buser is on a pace some people might call foolish, or what others might eventually call genius. Time will tell how this gamble will pay off for the four-time Iditarod champ, who is now resting on the other side of the Alaska Range in Rohn, where he checked in all alone at 9:53 a.m.
Usually at this stage in the race, most of the leaders are making their way into the Rainy Pass checkpoint. But apparently Buser has a different strategy — one that some are calling unprecedented. Since leaving as the first musher out of the starting chute yesterday in Willow, the 54-year-old from Big Lake has kept his lead by resting his dogs at checkpoints for a total of only 79 minutes in 169 miles of driving.
How bold is this move of his? Ally Zirkle, last year’s first musher into Rohn, didn’t arrive there until 7:17 p.m. The year before that in 2011 — a year marked by Kotzebue’s John Baker victory in record time — Lance Mackey was the first to arrive into Rohn at 5:45 p.m.
This morning Zirkle, who finished runner-up in last year’s Iditarod, was the third musher to reach Puntilla Lake. She checked in 19 minutes after Matt Failor, a 29-year-old Ohioan driving Buser’s B team, who arrived at 9 a.m.
Also arriving into Rainy Pass were Willow mushers Justin Savidis (9:55 a.m.) and DeeDee Jonrowe (10:11 a.m.).
UPDATE 7:50 a.m. MONDAY:
Martin Buser of Big Lake didn’t stay long enough for even a cup of coffee at Steve Perrins’ Rainy Pass Lodge early this morning as the four-time Iditarod champion kept distancing himself away from the pack.
Buser, 54, spent just two minutes at the Rainy Pass checkpoint on frozen Puntilla Lake. It took him 3 hours, 39 minutes to travel the 30 miles from Finger Lake to the Rainy Pass checkpoint. He is averaging 8.22 mph with all 16 dogs in harness, and so far is the only musher to have signed into the Rainy Pass checkpoint.
UPDATE 6 a.m. MONDAY
An aging Iditarod champion who has lived in Alaska so long he is almost part of the landscape is leading the charge toward the Alaska Range at a blistering pace Monday morning in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
While race fans were sleeping, four-time champ Martin Buser of Big Lake checked into Finger Lake at 1:33 a.m. He stopped for 26 minutes —just long enough to snack his dogs, give them water and change some booties — then headed up the trail toward Puntilla Lake. It took him about three and a half hours later to reach Rainy Pass Lodge at Puntilla Lake. He checked in there at 5:39 a.m. to lead Day 1 of the Last Great Race.
Racing the Iditarod for the 30th time, Buser knows that who wins this race is eventually determined not just by speed, but also stamina. But this early in the race speed matters, and that as well as a good trail has helped give him some breathing room among his fellow competitors.
Buser is one of the fastest teams out there, averaging 9.3 mph after traveling a little more than 100 miles into the 1,000-mile race. Closely behind him are the Mackey brothers — Lance and Jason — who checked into Finger Lake at 4:19 and 4:37 a.m., respectively. They didn’t stay long either. Lance, a four-time champion, stayed for just four minutes, and Jason bolted after two minutes.
Checking in behind them was 29-year-old Matt Failor, who is running Buser’s B team, and 15-year veteran Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof, who is still chasing that elusive first Iditarod victory. So far everyone who checked out of Finger Lake this morning left with all 16 dogs in tow.
Up ahead, mushers today will face the notorious Steps, a steep part of the trail that leads down to the Happy River. It’s a stretch of trail known to crush sleds, bones and Iditarod dreams.
“In some years it’s a pretty wild ride, but this year it looks good,” race marshal Mark Nordman said Saturday. “On a low snow year we’d like to take that winter access trail, but this year we’re going down the Steps.”
He used one word to describe the amount of snow mushers should expect this morning on the trail to Rainy Pass Lodge at Puntilla Lake.
“Plenty,” he said.