Thursday, March 19, 1998
Copyright 1998 Anchorage Daily News
Baker wakes up in time to be 5th
By DOUG O'HARRA
Daily News reporter
NOME - Out on the pre-dawn flats some 20 miles from the finish line in Nome, Kotzebue musher John Baker - driving for a fifth-place finish in the 26th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race - found his throbbing right ankle difficult to bear.
He'd left White Mountain about nine hours earlier - with nearly a four-hour lead on seven top mushers, including defending champion Martin Buser, top contender Linwood Fiedler and a hungry 23-year-old competitor from Big Lake named Ramey Smyth.
With a comfortable lead, Baker climbed into his sled a couple of miles from Safety to rest. His dogs - known for their excellent training and crack response to voice commands - kept trotting forward. The pain in his twisted joint subsided.
But before long, Baker - an Arctic bush pilot with Inupiat heritage who has spent thousands of hours traveling along the frozen sea - fell asleep.
His dogs stopped.
At 5:59 a.m., Buser drove into Safety, leading the pack of trailers. He drove out two minutes later, behind eight dogs.
One minute later, Fiedler arrived. He also left in minutes, with eight dogs.
A couple of minutes ticked by. Smyth mushed into Safety, stayed four minutes and began to drive his six dogs toward Nome at 6:14 a.m.
Smyth trains his team to finish races fast. "It's good for the dogs," he said once. Twice he's recorded the fastest Safety-to-Nome time.
The son of Iditarod veterans Bud Smyth and Lolly Medley, who with Mary Shields in 1974 became the first woman to finish the Iditarod, Ramey Smyth has known mushing his entire life. He trains dogs with his younger brother, Cim, another Iditarod vet. Ramey won the Kuskokwim 300 in 1995, defeating Iditarod champions Buser, Jeff King and Doug Swingley in the biggest mushing upset in years. His earnings financed his Iditarod run that year.
Since then, he has two top-20 Iditarod finishes, but he hasn't gotten wealthy. While many of Smyth's competitors in the 26th Iditarod dressed like Michelin tire men in puffy arctic suits embossed with sponsors' insignias, Smyth beat the elements with a worn green down jacket and ratty Carhartt pants. Underneath it all, he wore a cotton T-shirt, a souvenir from the Kusko.
In this race, Smyth started 49th. At Ruby, near the halfway point, he was 15th. By the time he reached Elim on the Norton Sound, he was in the top 10.
"I came out of the storm," he said.
He ran with a group that included Buser, Fiedler, five-time champion Rick Swenson and Vern Halter. The group left White Mountain about 11:30 Tuesday night. Smyth's 55-mile drive across the hills and wind-scoured flats took nearly seven hours. By then, he was in eighth place.
Out of Safety, Smyth's headlamp burned out and he got worried.
Then his team topped the hill at Cape Nome, and he caught sight of Fiedler's lamp, bobbing ahead.
At the front of Smyth's team was 6-year-old Squire, a wolfish dog with a curl-up tail from his family's kennel. Alongside was Houdini, a dog with sprint blood.
Squire has the magic urge to keep the tugline taunt.
"My leaders will go as fast as I can kick the sled," Smyth said later. "I did put them into overdrive. I said, 'All right, let's move!' "
Smyth kicked on the flats, ran on the upgrades. He caught and passed Fiedler. As light began to rise on the white plain east of Nome, he bore down on Buser, who was kicking and running too.
"He was going about as hard as anybody I'd ever seen," Smyth said. "Except for me."
Buser - a three-time champ - hit the sled brake, slowed, and let the young musher drive on by, forfeiting $1,739 in prize money - the difference between sixth and seventh place.
"He gave me a nice pass," Smyth said.
Buser called to Smyth, urging him to catch Baker.
But Baker was awake. Some time after 6 a.m., he sat up, glanced into the darkness and spied headlamps along the trail. His slower time over the Topkok Hills - and the inadvertent nap - had reduced a four-hour lead to minutes.
He leapt up and urged his dogs forward. They responded.
"They went real fast," he said later in Nome, a smile on his face.
With Buser only a few hundred yards behind, Smyth maintained his heart-
pounding pace. He shed the old down jacket and his long-sleeve shirt, running in his T-shirt in the 20-something temperatures. His legs pumped between the sled runners. His leaders surged against the tugline; four team dogs loped.
Nome was in sight.
Then Smyth saw the police car driving along the snowy street ahead - signaling that Baker had reached the town.
Baker pulled under the arch at 8:43 a.m., having spent nine days, 21 hours and 43 minutes on the trail. In fifth place, he earned $29,172.
He wasn't alone long. In minutes, people began urging Baker and his family to move off the street. Buser was coming, they said.
But they were wrong. It was Smyth - sprinting in his T-shirt, arms bare, dogs loping.
He drove them under the arch at 8:47 a.m. Sixth place paid $26,666.
Buser arrived 35 seconds later, earning $24,927.
A couple of hours later, Smyth - still flushed and a little stunned - congratulated John Barron, who arrived 12th.
"I think this was the race," said Smyth's father, Bud, a six-time Iditarod veteran. "It was pretty exciting."
"Feels pretty good," Smyth said. "Glad I'm in."
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