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Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race: Mushers to watch

Zack Steer
#5, Lance Mackey, Fairbanks, Alaska
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#21, Gerry Willomitzer, Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada
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#37, Christine Roalofs, Anchorage, Alaska
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#53, Louie Ambrose, St. Michael, Alaska
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#6, Ken Anderson, Fairbanks, Alaska
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#22, Travis Beals, Seward, Alaska
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#38, Ramey Smyth, Willow, Alaska
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#54, Jessica Hendricks, Two Rivers, Alaska
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#7, Michelle Phillips, Tagish, Yukon, Canada
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#23, Robert Bundtzen, Anchorage, Alaska
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#39, Rudy Demoski, Sr., Wasilla, Alaska
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#55, Josh Cadzow, Fort Yukon, Alaska
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#8, Newton Marshall, St. Anne, Jamaica
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#24, Aaron Burmeister, Nome, Alaska.
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#40, Angie Taggart, Ketchikan, Alaska
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#56, David Sawatzky, Healy, Alaska
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#9, Kelley Griffin, Wasilla, Alaska
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#25, Kelly Maixner, Big Lake, Alaska
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#41, Ed Stielstra, McMillian, Michigan
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#57, Wade Marrs, Wasilla, Alaska
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#10, Peter Kaiser, Bethel, Alaska
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#26, Jan Steves, Edmonds, Washington
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#42, Linwood Fiedler, Willow, Alaska
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#58, Aaron Peck, Bezanson, Alberta, Canada
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#11, Paul Gebhardt, Kasilof, Alaska
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#27, Aliy Zirkle, Two Rivers, Alaska
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#43, Bob Chlupach, Willow, Alaska
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#59, Jim Lanier, Chugiak, Alaska
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#12, Jason Mackey, Wasilla, Alaska
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#28, DeeDee Jonrowe, Willow, Alaska
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#44, Jake Berkowitz, Big Lake, Alaska
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#60, Cindy Abbott, Irvine, California
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#13, John Baker, Kotzebue, Alaska
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#29, Karin Hendrickson, Wasilla, Alaska
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#45, Curt Perano, Queenstown, New Zealand
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#61, Matt Failor, Big Lake, Alaska
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#14, Paige Drobny, Fairbanks, Alaska
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#30, Jessie Royer, Darby, Montana
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#46, Michael Williams, Jr., Akiak, Alaska
#62, Brent Sass, Manley Hot Springs, Alaska
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#63, Mikhail Telpin, Yanrakkynot, Chukotka, Russia
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#15, Charley Bejna, Addison, Illinois
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#31, Anna Berington, Kasilof, Alaska
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#47, Luan Ramos Marques, Macae, Brazil
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#64, Matt Giblin, Sterling, Alaska
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#16, Nicolas Petit, Girdwood, Alaska
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#32, Joar Leifseth Ulsom, Roros, Norway
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#48, Allen Moore, Two Rivers, Alaska
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#65, Richie Diehl, Aniak, Alaska
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#17, Cindy Gallea, Wykoff, Minnesota
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#33, Michael Suprenant, Chugiak, Alaska
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#49, Gerald Sousa, Talkeetna, Alaska
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#66, James Volek, Big Lake, Alaska
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#2, Martin Buser, Big Lake, Alaska
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#18, Jeff King, Denali, Alaska
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#34, Justin Savidis, Willow, Alaska
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#50, Mike Ellis, Two Rivers, Alaska
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#67, Sonny Lindner, Two Rivers, Alaska
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#3, Scott Janssen, Anchorage, Alaska
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#19, Dallas Seavey, Willow, Alaska
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#35, Mike Williams, Sr., Akiak, Alaska
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#51, Cim Smyth, Big Lake, Alaska
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#4 Jodi Bailey, Chatanika, Alaska
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#20, Kristy Berington, Kasilof, Alaska
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#36, Mitch Seavey, Seward, Alaska
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#52, Ray Redington Jr, Wasilla, Alaska
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For spectators and fans, the two weeks of Iditarod each March is much like planning a long vacation.  You start to prioritize work and family so you allow sufficient time each day to check on your favorite mushers, compare strategies, and second-guess decisions made in remote, far-off locations of Alaska.  

Fans travel vicariously on the backs of the mushers’ sleds via the wonder of the Internet – live stream videos, real-time GPS locations, and a plethora of blogs devoted to the minutiae of dog mushing.  My wife says I’m worthless around the house these two weeks.  “You might as well be out there racing on the trail,” she says, while not always admitting she’s guilty of the same thing.  “That’s all you are thinking about anyway.”

As a middle-aged man, I know it’s bad when I wake up at 3 a.m. to use the facilities, and end up spending two hours checking the current status of the leaders and all of my favorite teams and dogs.

No cure for Iditarod-itis 

If you are reading this story, you too probably have a bad case of “Iditarod-itis”.  There is no cure, only time will heal it somewhere around the time the last musher crosses the finish line two weeks from now.

This year’s race field reflects a theme of competitive parity that has been evident since Lance Mackey’s run of four straight victories from 2007-10 ended.   This year, I see 15 teams that could potentially win if EVERYTHING goes right for them.  Remember, each of them would need the perfect race for this to happen.  Here’s my list of 15:  

  1. Ken Anderson
  2. John Baker
  3. Jake Berkowitz
  4. Aaron Burmeister
  5. Martin Buser
  6. Paul Gebhardt
  7. DeeDee Jonrowe
  8. Pete Kaiser
  9. Jeff King
  10. Lance Mackey
  11. Ray Redington Jr.
  12. Dallas Seavey
  13. Mitch Seavey
  14. Ramey Smyth
  15. Aliy Zirkle

It takes three things to put together a winning team:  preparation, execution and luck.  There is no exact scientific formula for success.  If there was, you would see all the mushers training the same way, and using the same race strategy over the course of the 1,000-mile race. Instead, we see mushers with anywhere from 1,500 to upwards of 5,000 training miles in trail and weather conditions varied as much as the style of dogs each musher runs.

Best-laid plans are usually tossed aside during the trip to Nome, with mushers often resorting to plans “B”, “C” and so on.  One of the most frustrating aspects of distance sled-dog racing is that a successful mid-race decision made one year can turn out to be a bonehead move the next.  Trail conditions change -- even during the race itself.  

Last year, for instance, race leader Mitch Seavey of Sterling made a bold decision to run from his 24-hour layover strait through to Cripple.  It turned out to be the run that busted his team, as almost everybody behind him chose to rest along the way and ended up passing him later in the race.  But the same bold move proved to be a winner for Mackey in 2010.  What works one year does not always work the next.

The luck factor may be the most elusive and intangible part of mushing.  Nobody has quite figured out how to guarantee a great race; the best they can do is stack the cards in their favor and hope for the best.  Four-time champion Martin Buser compares the “perfect” race to a magic-carpet ride.  He says you don’t know how to get on the carpet, but when you do get a ride, enjoy it while you can.

Top 5 prospects 

Of the 15 teams listed above, I have picked five that I feel are true favorites.  These are the mushers who I feel have best stacked the cards in their favor, either through veteran racing experience, training innovation or upward-trending finishing results.  If you are betting money in your Iditarod office pool, these are the mushers to pick.  In no particular order:

Martin Buser, Big Lake: It’s not often that a musher gets the opportunity to combine two potential top-10 teams into one all-star team, but that is exactly what Buser will do this year. The decision to combine his team with his son Rohn’s race team can only leave the other mushers jealous. Combine that with the apparent “Buser-style” weather and trail conditions that are forecast, and you can see why Martin may be grinning at the start of the race. Buser’s past winning race strategy usually flourished when trails were hard and fast, similar to his training grounds in Big Lake. Martin likes to run fast for shorter distances and rest longer. In years with deep snow or slow trail, Buser suffered as the race proceeded. Look for him to leapfrog the crew  that prefers “long-and-slow” runs in a contrasting display of mushing orthodoxy.

John Baker, Kotzebue:  Opposite to Buser is Baker’s tendency to run long, slow mini-marathons upwards of 10-12 hours throughout the race.  This is a strategy that was innovated by the visiting Norwegians a decade ago and perfected by Mackey in his run of four-consecutive victories.  Baker’s big, physical stature benefited from a similar hard and fast trail in 2011, when he set the current course record of 8 days 18 hours and 46 minutes.  Baker is known to mimic this racing strategy in his training, often running 14-16 hours straight in the harsh coastal environment similar to Seward Peninsula trail over the last 250 miles to the Nome finish.  Baker’s dogs are always ready for an end-of-the-race push.  Sleep deprivation has occasionally proven to be Baker’s nemesis, causing him to make errors in judgment.  Luckily, Baker always had great lead dogs that could pull him along at a fast clip even if he was dozing on the sled.   I do not know if his trusted lead dog Velvet will be leading the way this year -- but if she is and Baker is within two hours of the leaders when they reach the Norton Sound at the Unalakleet checkpoint, he will be a force to reckon with.  

Dallas Seavey, Willow: The 26-year-old Seavey is defending champion, and his victory last year was no fluke.  In fact, it could be argued that his margin of victory (1 hour) over Aliy Zirkle would have been greater had he not throttled back to a more conservative race strategy near the finish to guarantee victory.  It takes a lot of maturity to hold your team back that late in the race, something not often seen in a 20-something musher.  Dallas knew that a win was a win, no matter if by one minute, one hour or one day.  Seavey faces the winner’s curse of heightened expectations this year.  How he handles the pressure of the new target on his back is yet to be seen.  His dogs are top-notch and his ability to physically withstand the rigors of the race are assets that could set him apart from such aging superstars as Buser, four-time champion Jeff King and Dallas’ dad, Mitch Seavey, the 2004 champ.

Aaron Burmeister, Nenana:  Burmeister has been meticulously planning his return to the upper echelons of Iditarod dog mushing during the past decade, and the results are showing.  A surprise face in the top-five last year (fourth place), it would be no surprise to see Burmeister finish first under the burled arch in his old home town of Nome this year.  Burmeister has meticulously bred, bought, and leased sled dogs from top mushers to put together a ragtag group of canine all-stars.  Perhaps Burmeister’s greatest asset this year was his dog handler, Tony Browning, an experienced musher from the Y-K Delta who ran Burmeister’s race team to a close second-place finish in this year’s Kuskokwim 300. Burmeister has a career background in construction project management and his approach to racing and training is very methodical.  Nothing is left to chance.  He will not be an early race leader, but I expect to see him in the mix at the finish.

Ramey Smyth, Willow:  It’s about time for Smyth to win this race.  He has been the most consistent top-10 musher in the last five years, including a trio of top-three finishes.  Ramey often runs a very conservative race strategy from the start -- I would argue too conservative.  He sets his team up for a series of long runs in the second half of the race after his mandatory 24-hour layover, which usually catapults him to the front of the pack.  In last year’s race, Smyth went from 14th place in Kaltag to third place in Nome over the final third of the race.  Such an incredible move up the field makes one wonder how he would finish if he just ran a little harder at the beginning. For Smyth to win, he needs to be more aggressive in the first half of the race so that he does not have so much ground to make up. Famously, Smyth often packs a pair of lightweight tennis shoes for the final 77-mile run to Nome.  If Smyth is within an hour of any musher leaving White Mountain, they might as well not bother as Smyth has mastered the art of the final run to Nome, winning the “Fastest Safety to Nome” award a record seven times.  

So there you have it.  Of course, now that I’ve made some predictions, none of them will end up in the top-five.  I’m sure to get flack for not picking Zirkle, or King or Mackey.  Each of these mushers has a chance to win. I just feel the other five are in a better position.  At least at the start of the race, they are  . . .

How about a dark horse? 

No list of potential winners would be complete without a dark horse that nobody expects to win – somebody who could pull off the upset if everything goes his or her way. Here’s mine: 

Ken Anderson:  Anderson has been one of the most inconsistent top-20 Iditarod mushers over the past decade.  His best finish is fourth place (in 2008 and 2010), but he has often followed up with a lackluster performance.  For a few years, Anderson spread himself thin trying to race both the Yukon Quest and Iditarod during the same season.  Anderson has re-focused his attention on Iditarod and has re-built his kennel of dogs focused solely on Nome.  This has not been an easy task in light of his growing family, including three children under the age of 5.  Anderson is a student of the race, perhaps overanalyzing checkpoint times and strategies in the past when he should have focused on just running his team to the best of their potential.  Anderson has proven to be unafraid of unorthodox moves, and this could be the year that he surprises his competitors with a bold move to put him in the mix.  Veteran mushers know not to count Ken out. 

The 2013 Iditarod features an average sized field of rookies.  Some 20 percent of the field (13 of 67) will be making their Iditarod debuts, including some second attempts after previous scratches.  There are three rookies that stand out as ones to watch towards the middle- to front of the pack.  

Aniak musher Richie Diehl has proven himself in mid-distances races, but runs the risk being overwhelmed by the size and scope of Iditarod if he tries to push his team too hard early on.  Two Rivers musher Mike Ellis is an Iditarod rookie, but no rookie to 1,000-mile races having finished three Yukon Quests.  Ellis runs a team of high-octane Siberian Huskies, and is known to beat many of the Alaskan Husky teams. Look for a few well know Alaska teams to get “Sibed” by Ellis.  

Top rookie 

My pick for Rookie Of The Year is a relatively unknown young musher from Norway:  Joar Ulsom.  Ulsom represents the next generation of Norwegian mushers following such stars as two-time champion Robert Sorlie, Bjornar Andersen and Harald Tunheim.  He runs his own kennel of dogs, but races under the auspice of Team Beringia.  Do not be confused, as Ulsom won’t be anywhere near his “teammate”, Chukotka musher and fellow rookie Mikhail Telpin after the start of the race on Sunday.  

While I don’t expect Ulsom to match the incredible fourth-place rookie finish that Andersen posted in his 2005 Iditarod debut, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him crack the top-15 and keep some of the veterans looking over their backs.  For a rookie, Ulsom appears to be well prepared, and has exhibited an unmatched calm in the face of racing through a new country full of  unfamiliar places.  

I will be writing my opinion of the race and it’s participants over the  next 14 days. I welcome your comments, and questions.  As a past competitor, I can only sympathize with the mushers as they prepare for a most excellent wilderness adventure across Alaska in the winter.  Most just want to get on the trail and get into the mushing groove, away from the distractions of media, family and jobs.  For the next 14 days, they get to be the center of sporting attention in Alaska and around the world.  The rest of us get to sit on the sidelines and watch the drama unfold.  Enjoy the show.

Zack Steer of Sheep Mountain has finished five Iditarods, including a third-place finish in 2007. This is his second year of Iditarod commentary for Alaska Dispatch. Reach him at zsteer@gmail.com