John Barron is one of the gray eminences of the Iditarod. And not just metaphorically because of his longevity. He's got gray hair and a gray mustache. So gray it's going on white.
If he were a civil servant, he'd be eligible for his 20-year pension this season. At 50, Barron has been racing the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race since 1979. He is a perennial, a musher to watch for, a musher who is steady, who shows in the money and makes some noise. But he is just shy of that group of front-runners to be feared, whose names are mentioned in different tones.
No, they don't whisper "top five" around Barron. That's because in all these years, the Montana Creek musher has never been there. He has collected top 20 money 11 times though and was 12th in 1998 with his fastest-ever time of 10 days and 40 minutes. And he did it with a ridiculously youthful team, dogs who were barely out of puppyhood. By mushing standards they were toddlers.
"They're still babies," said Barron Thursday night at the annual prerace banquet as he prepared for today's start of the 27th annual Iditarod. "The average age is 3 years old."
This group of dogs has Barron thinking big, without talking big, of course. You have to read between the lines and the aw-shucks description of their capabilities he offers to discern his good vibes.
"It's a really strong, solid team," said Barron. "If I don't have a problem like sickness, it will be impressive."
That's not exactly a ringing-endorsement, Joe-Namath-we're-gonna-win-the-Super-Bowl declaration, but that wouldn't be Barron's style.
Barron placed 37th in his first Iditarod in 1979. While he has had some bad luck, scratching four times, he finished as high as 11th, in 1986, and 12th twice, in 1995 and 1998.
He and his wife, Kathy, live in Montana Creek, where they've not only raised a thousand sled dogs, but three sons.
Laird, 28, Jason, 26, and William, 23, have all run the Junior Iditarod. Will focuses on sprint mushing, but Laird and Jason gave the Iditarod a shot. In 1993, John was 15th, Laird was 24th and Jason was 34th. The only Barron missing was The Red Baron.
Here's the irony though. Dad perseveres on the Iditarod Trail, but the sons have retired. For now, at least.
"All my kids were raised from itty, bitty babes with the dogs," said John. "They wanted to try other things. It's a temporary hiatus. They'll get back into it."
"I'm not going anywhere," said Barron.
Except Minnesota. Barron entered the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in Minnesota in January and won. He took home $12,000 and a nice line for his resume, which includes past victories in the Knik 200 and the Klondike 300.
Barron said the hilly terrain he trains on between Sheep Creek and Montana Creek takes him over a "4,800-foot mountain" regularly, so while the locals warned of "Heartbreak Hill" in the middle of the Beargrease, Barron crested it and was on his way down before realizing he'd been over the toughest point on the route. Not to underplay the undulating nature of the Beargrease.
"A lake seven miles long, that's the only flat spot in the race," said Barron. "It's just one hill after another. It's a tough race track, but the dogs are used to it."
Barron certainly sounds like a man proud of an up-and-coming team of dogs. He said he didn't know what their attitudes would be like when he began cart training in late summer, but they were rarin' to run. Then, just before the Beargrease started, he said, "they were like a football team, all pumped."
Could be the musher gave them a great, Knute Rockne pep talk.
Not that Barron takes too much credit, you understand, even if you can see those gears working when he thinks about the Iditarod.
"I'm a firm believer in middle age, middle distance," he said. "The 300-mile races are looking better and better to me. This team's capable of winning this (Iditarod) race. You hear the old cliche that the musher isn't as good as the dogs. But I'm not buying into that."
Barron said this with one of those I-know-something-you-don't twinkles in his eye. You get the impression John Barron feels this is the year he gives everybody up front a fright.
* This column is the opinion of Daily News sports editor Lew Freedman