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Iditablog: Smyth's fast closing speed to Nome doesn't wipe out disappointment

Craig MedredAlaska Dispatch
Mitch Seavey kicks it into high gear on the trail between White Mountain and Nome. March 12, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Mitch Seavey kicks it into high gear on the trail between White Mountain and Nome. March 12, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Mitch Seavey kicks it into high gear on the trail between White Mountain and Nome. March 12, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Aliy Zirkle working to catch up to Iditarod leader Mitch Seavey on the trail between White Mountain and Nome. March 12, 2013
Loren Holmes photo

Update Thursday, March 14, 12:20 p.m.

The greatest closer in Iditarod history had a forgettable race this year but once again proved he owns last stretch of the 1,000-mile trail to Nome.

Ramey Smyth of Willow blitzed the closing 22 miles of the Iditarod Trail from Safety to Nome in 2 hours, 19 minutes to crawl into 20th place.  It’s the fastest time on that stretch of any musher who’s finished so far, and puts Smyth in position to win the Fastest Time Safety to Nome Award, sponsored by the Nome Kennel Club, a record eighth time.

Perhaps the Iditarod should simply rename it the Smyth award. Ramey’s brother Cim has won it four times and his dad, Bud Smyth, won --twice.

But John Cooper owns the record for the 22-mile dash – the only sub-two-hour clocking on record, 1:59:24.

Smyth closing speed – with just seven dogs in harness -- got him past 2011 Iditarod champion John Baker of Kotzebue to finish 20th.  Despite racing the final 22-mile stretch 51 minutes faster than 19th-place Lance Mackey, Smyth was still more than two minutes behind him at the finish.  For finishing 20th, Smyth earned $10,700 – or $1,100 more than he would have earned for 21st.  The top 30 Iditarod finishers all earn prize money.

Despite the speedy finish, Smyth’s race was sorely disappointing from the beginning. The veteran musher from Willow was forced to drop one his main lead dogs, Barley, in Skwentna, about 100 miles into the race, when veterinarians detected an elevated heart rate. Smyth insists Barley was fine, and that a rookie vet just “scared the crap” out of the 5-year-old dog who has previously finished two Iditarods and one Yukon Quest. Smyth called Barley one of the most “solid dogs in his team.

“It's completely ridiculous,” Smyth told Alaska Dispatch reporter Suzanna Caldwell. “That one should be here helping lead the team.  (Barley) was going to help put food in my kid's mouths.”

Smyth said at the time he planned to file a protest against the call in Nome.

Last year, Smyth finished third, earning $42,900.  In 2011, he was second, earning $46,300.

Update Wednesday, March 13, 10:20 a.m.

Although Mitch Seavey won the big battle, a number of pitched struggles for position took place after the winner of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race crossed the finish line in Nome.  The difference of one spot in the standing was worth thosands of dollars to the musher.

No race to the finish was closer than the struggle for seventh place, where Norwegian rookie Joar Leifseth Ulsom nipped Jake Berkowitz of Big Lake by just 16 seconds. Even eighth place was a success for Berkowitz, who was one of the many mushers to contend for the lead in one of the most turbulent Iditarods of recent history. Last year, Berkowitz was in position for a top-10 finish on the home stretch when he severely cut his hand with a knife, forcing him to drop out of the race. 

By Wednesday morning, 14 mushers had passed beneath the burled arch on Nome's Front Street to end their 1,000-mile journey across Alaska.  Defending champion Dallas Seavey drove a young dog team to fourth place behind Jeff King and Aily Zirkle.  

And 59-year-old DeeDee Jonrowe finished an impressive 10th. That was the 16th top-10 finish in a career dating back to 1980 -- and her second 10th place finish in a row. Here's a quick look at the finishers so far:

1) Mitch Seavey, Sterling, 9 days, 7 hours, 40 minutes; 2) Aily Zirkle, Two Rivers, 9 days, 8 hours, 4 minutes; 3) Jeff King, Denali Park, 9 days, 9 hours, 22 minutes; 4) Dallas Seavey, Willow, 9 days, 10 hours, 21 minutes; 5) Ray Redington, Wasilla, 9 days, 11 hours, 5 minutes; 6) Nicolas Petit, Girdwood, 9 days, 11 hours, 39 minutes; 7) Joar Ulsom, Norway, 9 days, 12 hours, 34 minutes; 8) Jake Berkowitz, Big Lake, 9 days, 12 hours, 34 minutes; 9) Sonny Lindner, Fairbanks, 9 days, 13 hours, 11 minutes; 10) DeeDee Jonrowe, Willow, 9 days, 13 hours, 25 minutes; 11) Aaron Burmeister, Nome, 9 days, 14 hours, 19 minutes; 12) Ken Anderson, Fairbanks, 9 days, 16 hours, 9 minutes; 13) Peter Kaiser, Bethel, 9 days, 17 hours, 37 minutes; 14) Josh Cadzow, Fort Yukon, 9 days, 18 hours, 8 minutes.

Update Tuesday, March 12, 10:40 p.m.

A tired Mitch Seavey crossed the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Nome just after 10:30 Tuesday night to get a hug from his wife and claim a long-awaited second victory in the Last Great Race. Seavey, 53, last won in 2004, and some had begun to dismiss him as a one-time wonder. His son, Dallas, won last year and Mitch was back in seventh. The roles were reversed somewhat this year, although Dallas still appeared headed toward a top-5 finish. 

With the victory, Mitch Seavey becomes the oldest musher in Iditarod history to take home the top prize.

Seavey had been locked in a last-gasp battle with Aliy Zirkle, also the 2012 runner-up and on her way to another second-place finish this year. Only 13 minutes separated the two when they departed White Mountain on Tuesday afternoon, with 77 miles between them and Nome. Seavey never faltered though, maintaining and even increasing his lead a bit during a speedy run through the race's final leg.

On the trail that winds up and through the Topkok Hills before dropping to the Bering Sea beaches, Seavey appeared a man catching his second wind. From the air he could be seen pedaling the sled forward with one leg while the other stood on the runner. Sometimes he used a ski pole as well to help the dogs power forward. He was going at it so hard he looked something like a crazed octopus flailing away at the snow.

Zirkle seemed to be struggling more with the fatigue. Her arms were at times propped on the handlebar of the sled, and she appeared to be resting over them. In both teams, though, the dogs were plugging away like contented little machines, gobbling up the miles toward the end. 

Update Tuesday, March 12, 9:10 p.m.

One of the oldest families in the history of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was putting its imprint on the competition in a big way Tuesday. Mitch Seavey from Sterling, son of Dan Seavey from Seward, was dueling for his second Iditarod victory with son Dallas, the defending Iditarod champ, not far behind. Dan raced in the very first Iditarod in 1973 and finished third.

Mitch, the 2004 winner, this year hit the Safety checkpoint at 7:37 p.m. with a 24-minute lead on Aily Zirke from Two Rivers, a past winner of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada. It is about 20 miles from Safety to the finish line over 675-foot Cape Nome. A GPS satellite tracking device on Seavey's sled was showing no sign of his team faltering.

His dogs appeared to be chugging along at the same 7-8 mph pace into which they'd settled along the coast. The trackers -- there is also one on Zirkle's sled -- at times Tuesday showed her closing to within less than a mile of Seavey, but his dogs always managed to pull away. She was about three miles behind as the duo left Safety headed for what is sure to be one of the closest Iditarod finishes in decades.

The race hasn't seen this kind of competition since the early 1980s. Since then, the winners have generally managed to pull away to finish at least half an hour ahead and more often hours ahead. Zirkle did not appear willing to let that happen. The satellite eye showed her continuing to put the pressure on the 53-year-old Seavey's team as they neared the cape.

If Seavey holds on to win, he will be the oldest ever victor. That distinction last went to Jeff King from Denali Park who was 50 when he won in 2006. King looked in position to repeat that feat just a couple days ago, but his team fell of the pace. He looked on the way to third Tuesday night with young Dallas, 25, just behind. 

Dallas won the Iditarod last year in front of what appeared to be a wave of up-and-coming young mushers, but the old men have battled back strong this year. It could be a breakthrough for Mitch, who claimed an Iditarod victory in 2004 and then spent nearly a decade trying to claw his way back into the winner's circle. The closest he got was third in 2005. No matter the final outcome of the 2013 Iditarod, which saw him dueling head-to-head with the team of Aliy Zirkle from Two Rivers over the last 90 miles of the 1,000-mile course, Mitch seemed sure to best that.

And Dallas, whose team started the race slow and rarely was mentioned as being among the top contenders, looked to be on his way to a fourth or fifth place finish. No family in Iditarod history has ever put two teams in the top five. What the Seaveys were doing Tuesday had all the markings of that thing called a "dynasty."

Update Tuesday, March 12, 8:15 p.m.

Aliy Zirkle's hopes for Iditarod glory are fading. For the second year in a row, it looks as though she may lose the Last Great Race to a Seavey. Last year it was Dallas Seavey, the youngest musher to ever win the grueling 1,000-mile race. This year, it's Dallas' father Mitch, the 2004 Iditarod champion, who left the checkpoint of White Mountain with a 13-minute lead over Zirkle.

Seavey managed to maintain that lead on the trail from White Mountain to Safety on Tuesday night, despite a couple of close calls and bursts of speed from Zirkle and her team. Seavey arrived in Safety at 7:37 p.m., stopping just long enough to check in before taking off again for Nome and the Burled Arch on Front Street there. Zirkle was out aat 8:02 p.m.

The run from Safety to Nome is a scant 22 miles, and if Zirkle was hoping to seize control, her chances worsened when Seavey arrived first into the final checkpoint. Barring a display of mushing prowess that would dig deep into her team's reserves, Zirkle appears once again bound for the second-place position in the Iditarod, continuing a streak of 23 years without a woman champion in the world's most popular sled-dog race.

Race blogger Sebastian Schnuelle posted photos of Zirkle passing through Safety a little more than 20 minutes after Seavey, which means Zirkle actually lost a bit of ground on the 55-mile run from White Mountain to Safety.

Update Tuesday, March 12, 4:50 p.m.

Sleepy Iditarod mushers stumbled around the White Mountain checkpoint Tuesday afternoon, making preparations for the final push into Nome. Mitch Seavey, first into White Mountain early in the morning, nodded off while staring at stat sheets. Aliy Zirkle, the second in, complained she had the “wobbles.” Both had red eyes and wind-burnt faces.

And then there was Jeff King. He slurred his words and dragged his feet, asking for help to read the numbers on the microwave when he warmed his vacuum-sealed lasagna.

Sleep deprivation or not, mushers are still plotting their plans of the final miles of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Seavey needs to hang on. Zirkle must surge ahead. And King, who is about an hour behind the two, well, he needs a miracle.

King had tried to make a bold move Monday morning, pushing through the checkpoint at Koyuk while the rest of the frontrunners stopped to rest. He said the plan was push his dog team into Elim slowly, rest, then take advantage of the lead.

The plan backfired when his dogs “gave him the middle finger” a few miles before Elim.

“The trail started getting worse and worse,” he said. “Then I got to the flats and it seemed like I was on the surface of the moon.”

“I was sure a snow hook was digging under the sled, (that) was the way the whole thing felt,” he added.

King might have been sleepy and reeling from the run on Tuesday, but he was still confident he could catch up with Seavey and Zirkle, despite being an hour behind.

He said it's in his personality to be on the chase. “A one-, two-, three-hour stint in the lead is enough to send me to the looney bin,” he said.

Still, King isn't where he wants to be. “If it had been cloudy and a different trail, it'd be a totally different outcome.”

Update Tuesday, March 12, 1:20 p.m.

Two more mushers scratched from the Iditarod Sled Dog Race on Tuesday.  One was named Mackey.

Not four-time champion and legend Lance Mackey, who was running 20th out of Elim behind 10 dogs.  Rather, it was his brother Jason Mackey, who ended his quest in Unalakleet. 

Jason, 41, of Wasilla, was back in the Iditarod for the first time since 2008, when he placed 33rd. He debuted in 2004, finishing 26th – and third among rookies.  That was just two spots behind his more-famous brother, who would soon begin his championship run of four consecutive victories.

“My passion for racing sled dogs has always been a very important part of my life, with my sights set on becoming the next Mackey to win,” Jason told the Iditarod before the race.   “I won’t ever stop trying until that day comes. I will win! What year? It’s my obsession, day in and day out.”

Rudy Demoski, Sr., 67, also of Wasilla, pulled out of the first race he’s entered in 28 years.   Demoski, who pulled out in Unalakleet with just nine dogs remaining, finished fourth in the 1974 race, the second Iditarod contested.

“I have been thinking about running again for several years, especially when I see some of my friends racing,” Demoski told the Iditarod before the race.  “I obtained sponsorship this year and decided since I wasn’t getting any younger, this is the time to go.”

Update Tuesday, March 12, 6:30 a.m.

Aliy Zirkle is looking to make her 13th Iditarod run her luckiest. Zirkle came in to the White Mountain checkpoint at 5:24 a.m. -- just 13 minutes behind 2004 champion Mitch Seavey and current race leader.

“Did I make up any time?” she asked checkers after pulling into the community during the cold, dark early morning hours. “I was trying to!”

Zirkle jumped on the runners when she heard the time. The Two Rivers musher quickly closed the gap on Seavey during the 46-mile run from Elim to White Mountain. Despite leaving hours behind Seavey, Zirkle took less rest in Elim and charged through the hilly terrain between the two checkpoints.

“These Yukon Quest dogs know how to climb hills,” said Zirkle, who won the 2000 Quest and saw her husband, Allen Moore, win it last month. “So do Quest mushers.”

White Mountain, located just off of the Bering Sea coast on the Fish River is a critical juncture for the race. Mushers must now take an eight-hour mandatory layover before the final run to the finish line in Nome.

Seavey was noticeably more subdued coming into the checkpoint. He looked groggy, his face and moustache covered with ice. He moved slowly as he parked his dogs and laid out straw. The Sterling musher said his dogs were tired coming into the checkpoint. Seavey said he never saw Zirkle during his run to White Mountain. Zirkle said she didn't see Seavey either -- and she didn't see him pulling much either.

Seavey said now it's just a matter of putting his dogs in drive and getting to the finish line.

“Being in front of the other team at the end,” he said. “Hopefully I'll be in first.”

Update Monday, March 11, 2013, 9 p.m.

Mitch Seavey has reclaimed the lead in the 2013 Iditarod.

Seavey could only watch as four-time champion Jeff King came and went at the checkpoint of Koyuk on Monday morning, but by evening it was Seavey who had the last laugh, having passed King along the trail and arrived first -- as he had at Koyuk -- at the checkpoint of Elim just after 6:30 p.m.

Seavey opted to rest for a bit at Koyuk, while King spent only a few minutes at the checkpoint before heading back onto the trail. He departed the checkpoint at 8:22 a.m., a full three hours ahead of Seavey. But King didn't arrive in Elim until 8:30 p.m. -- two hours behind -- a five-hour swing between his departure from Koyuk and his arrival at the next checkpoint. He averaged less than 4 mph between the two stations. Seavey, an Iditarod champion in 2004, was still resting in Elim as of 9:30 p.m.

The next leg will take the Iditarod frontrunners to White Mountain, where all racers are required to take an eight-hour rest before the final 77-mile push to Nome. Expect the 2013 champion to pass beneath the burled arch on Nome's Front Street Tuesday afternoon or early evening.

Aliy Zirkle reached Elim 10 minutes after King and Ray Redington, Jr. was just three minutes behind Zirkle.  But neither musher could pull any closer to the 53-year-old Seavey, who is also the father of 2012 Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey. The elder Seavey's chances are looking up after King's slow run between Koyuk and Elim. King reportedly had trouble getting his lead dog headed down the trail out of the Koyuk checkpoint, a problem which appeared to have stopped the Denali Park musher, according to his GPS tracker. Ray Redington, Jr. may have stopped to help King as well. 

The younger Seavey was in eighth place out of Koyuk, but had only eight dogs remaining, the fewest of any musher in the top 15 of the standings.

Update Monday, March 11, 2013, 4:30 p.m.

While the front of the pack of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race closed in on Nome, the handful of racers in contention for the Red Lantern Award that goes to the last-place finisher was slowly moving up the Yukon River.

Cindy Abbott of Irving, Calif., was running last, into Grayling at 2:09 p.m. Monday, with fellow rookie James Volek and Jan Steves about an hour and a half ahead. Steves, 56, of Edmonds, Wash., is the defending Red Lantern winner in 14 days, 11 hours, 57 minutes. Volek, 24, of Big Lake works as a handler for Martin Buser and is running one of the boss’ puppy teams.

Abbott, 54, has Wegener’s granulomatosis, a rare vascular disease that affects about one person in 20,000.  After reaching the summit of Mount Everest in 2010, Abbott   hooked up Lance Mackey’s Comeback Kennel in Fairbanks to begin working toward and Iditarod run. 

Update Monday, March 11, 2013, 8:30 a.m.

As the first hint light spread over the Seward Peninsula Monday morning, former Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey of Sterling guided his 10 dogs into Koyuk after 6½ hours on the Norton Sound sea ice, with the prospect of a second Iditarod title just 170 miles away. 

Seavey covered the 50 miles from Shaktoolik to Koyuk at a crisp average speed of 7.75 mph as he bid to hold off Aaron Burmeister of Nome and four-time champion Jeff King of Denali Park -- plus a herd of contenders looking to overhaul the leaders.

But as he rested his team, King came through the checkpoint and headed down the trail, grabbing the lead in the 1,000-mile race across Alaska for the first time.

For veterans King, 57, and Seavey, 53, a head-to-head encounter is nothing new.  They’ve been matching dog teams at Alaska’s top sled-dog races for decades.   

One of Mitch’s sons, Danny Seavey, has been blogging about the Iditarod on the family Facebook page, where he discussed the rivalry.

“Jeff King and Mitch Seavey have gone head to head before. Many times. In fact, I can remember at least $278,000 they have split after finishing first and second. The guy Tiger Woods beat by 15 strokes Sunday probably made that much in an afternoon, but $278,000 is a lot of money in the dog sledding world.

“So like division rivals in sports, these two know each other well. And in many ways, they’re very similar. Jeff owns and operates Husky Homestead tours in Denali. Mitch owns IdidaRide Sled Dog Tours in Seward. They are the two biggest tour operations on the Alaska road system. 

“They're both innovators. Gear, sleds, harnesses. You name it, and they probably have a competing product or style out there. Jeff has half harnesses, Mitch has spreader harnesses. The rest of the field either copied one of them or is still using what we had in the 1950s. Mitch refused to switch to the sit-down sled for years because Jeff invented it.

“Mitch donated $10,000 to an Iditarod fund. Jeff donated $50,000 the next year. Jeff has three daughters. Mitch has four sons. At least two couples of them have gone to the prom together. 

“They're both in their mid-50s. Both wrestled in college, developed land and own real estate because they know there's no retirement in mushing. Jeff's first Iditarod was 1981, Mitch's was 1982…

“You get the point. They've met. So now, let’s get to the competitive history. They've raced together since the beginning of time (literally from my standpoint) But the rivalry really started in 2004. 

“Mitch left Unalakleet half an hour behind Jeff in 2004. Jeff had stopped for 5.5 hours. Mitch blew right through, and went on to win … by two hours over Jeff.

“Jeff King had the 2006 Kusko 300 in the bag. He left the last checkpoint with an hour lead. We watched in fascination as Mitch cut his lead with every update, only to finish 90 seconds behind Jeff. We had visions of them dueling it out Ben-Hur style, only to later find out neither knew the other was anywhere close.

(King had the upper hand in three of his four Iditarod victories as well as other Kusko races. He's the winningest racer in Kusko history.) 

“But the big one was the 2008 All Alaska Sweepstakes. The biggest prize ever for an Alaska sporting event was on the line, $100,000, winner take all. Jeff led the entire race, only to be passed by Mitch within sight of Safety (it also finished in Nome) and lost by 7 minutes. The All Alaska Sweepstakes only runs every 25 years. You only get one shot in your career. Jeff calls himself the winningest musher of all time. He wanted that one . . .

 “Sun Tzu said "Know Thy Enemy." Jeff and Mitch know each other. I say, "Know the story behind the Iditarod, and it's even more fascinating." 

Update Sunday, March 10, 2013, 9:05 p.m.

Yet another graybeard was making threatening moves as the top mushers in the Iditarod Sled Dog Race barreled down the Seward Peninsula on Sunday, focused on a finish in Nome on Tuesday. 

Who was the new grandfather causing a stir? Not Martin Buser, 54, the early race leader who faded on the Yukon River and was stuggling to hang onto a top-10 finish.  Nor was it Mitch Seavey, 53, the current race leader from Sterling who captured his only Iditarod victory nine years ago. 

Rather it was Jeff King, 57, the four-time Iditarod champion from Denali Park who had thrust himself into the mix. King was the third racer to pull out of Unalakleet late Sunday afternoon, cutting his rest there so he could track Seavey, who left just one hour, 46 minutes earlier. And King’s crew of 13 dogs was pulling hard. He’d made the 80-mile run from Kaltag, the last Yukon River checkpoint, to Unalakleet more than an hour faster than Seavey -- and nearly two hours faster than Nome’s Aaron Burmeister, who was hanging onto second place Sunday night.

In 12 months, the scene of one of King’s most grueling Iditarod moments had become the site of his latest success. A year ago, some of King’s dogs developed what appeared to be serious stomach problems about 12 miles outside of Unalakleet. They stopped, curled up in the snow and refused to budge, forcing the veteran musher to scratch for the first time in an Iditarod career dating back to 1981.

The sit-down strike happened as King was posting fast trail times and appeared to be poised to make a run at Aily Zirkle and eventual champion Dallas Seavey, who were leading the 1,000-mile race. 

"They really hit a wall," King told Alaska Dispatch reporter Jill Burke at the time. "And there's no place to fix it out here. I'm not interested in having it not being fun for me or the dogs. If I have to scratch from one now and then, so be it."

That decision may be paying dividends now. King posted the fastest time of any musher who’s completed the long, rugged 80-mile crossing from Kaltag to Unalakleet.

“We’re back where we wanted to be,” King told the Iditarod Insider in Unalakeet on Sunday.   “The dogs are smooth and fast and happy and injury free. They’re eating great. I’m very happy with all that.”

Mitch Seavey, on the other hand, may not be so thrilled.

Update Sunday, March 10, 2013, 8:45 p.m.

KOYUK -- Word is that Gerry Willomeitzer has corralled his loose dog and headed for the Shageluk checkpoint. Finally.

Update Sunday, March 10, 2:15 p.m.

UNALAKLEET -- Two dogs are still missing on the Iditarod Sled Dog Trail, though one musher has seemingly not given up hope that he will find his.

According to trackers, Canadian musher Gerry Willomitzer has been slowly making his way between the checkpoints of Shageluk and Iditarod, searching for his dog that went missing Friday. Willomitzer is unable to check into the Shageluk checkpoint unless he has a full team.

From Unalakleet Sunday, Jeff King, described what happened with Willomitzer in the rural, rarely traveled section of trail just before the Big Yentna River. King said he came on Willomitzer in the night, after King's dogs followed Willomitzer down the wrong stretch of trail.

Immediately, King saw the loose dog and heard Willomitzer calling for the dog. King stopped his team and tried to help catch the dog who was "clearly nervous" and "bolting" away from Willomitzer.

"That dog wanted away from everything alive," King said.

The dog ran into King's stopped team. The four-time Iditarod champ tried to clip him into the line, but the dog bit at King repeatedly. King tried to hang on, but was forced to let go when the dog kept fighting him and the rest of his team. The dog kept running around, before finally Willomitzer managed to get his hands on the dog.

King, focused back on untangling his team, which had balled up in the chaos. King suspects that somewhere in the mix,
the dog ran away from Willomitzer again, as he could hear the Whitehorse musher yelling for the dog as King pulled away.

Willomitzer is the second musher to loose a dog on the Iditarod trail this year. Jamaican musher Newton Marshall scratched earlier this week when he lost a dog between Rohn and Nikolai. Race Judge Warren Palfrey said as of Sunday, Willomitzer's dog still
hadn't been found. He said pilots had been scouting the area looking for any signs of the dogs. Palfrey noted that based on the tracker, Willomitzer is probably stationed at the Yentna cabin.

"You don't want any Ski-doos out there chasing a dog," he said. "Maybe he'll come out to the other dogs."

Update, Sunday, March 10, 11:26 a.m.

UNALAKLEET -- Race leaders reached the snowy, windy checkpoint of Unalakleet on Sunday morning, but they're still on the hunt for truly cold temperatures.

Mitch Seavey of Sterling was first to the checkpoint, ski poling furiously as about 100 people watched him cruise in 15 minutes ahead of Aaron Burmeister of Nome.

Seavey won $2,500 worth of gold nuggets for arriving first – about one and half ounces of gold, all collected from the Nome area. The 2004 champ said this was the first time he had won an award along this year's trail – last year he was first to the Yukon, but the award went unsponsored. Seavey said he didn't try to win the Gold Coast award this year, saying his eye is on a larger prize – a second Iditarod championship.

"(Chasing checkpoint awards) can be distracting," he said. "But it's still pretty cool. "I'm going for the Nome coast award."

Over the bruising 80 miles from the previous checkpoint of Kaltag, Seavey surged past other mushers, including long-time race leader Martin Buser and 2012 runner-up Aliy Zirkle. Burmeister and Seavey seemed to be on top of each other according to trackers, though Seavey said he passed Burmeister for good about 10 miles outside of Unalakleet.

Both Seavey and Burmeister noted that trail between Kaltag and Unalakleet was soft, slow and wet. Light snow fell from gray skies in the town of about 700, the first coastal checkpoint on the Iditarod Trail. Early morning temperatures were in the low 20s, making for some of the coldest weather mushers have encountered on what has otherwise been a warm, soggy race that even saw rain a few days earlier.

The rest of the pack moved slowly toward Unalakleet Sunday at least three hours behind the leaders. Still, Burmeister – a Nome native who received a warm, noisy welcome in Unalakleet -- immediately asked how far back the rest of the mushers were.

"Heck of a race, eh?" head veterinarian Stu Nelson asked Burmeister and he looked over his team.

Burmeister's response?

"Oh boy."

Suzanna Caldwell is covering the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race for Alaska Dispatch.

--

An Iditarod that was a chase-the-leader exercise for hundreds of miles turned into a Saturday night scrum as a pack of eager dog mushers left the Yukon River within about two hours of one another to start the rugged 90-mile Kaltag Crossing to Unalakleet on the Norton Sound.

Aliy Zirkle led the way, and for the Two River mushers it was a familiar scenario -- and perhaps a nightmarish one.  Twelve months ago she did the same thing, leading the top Iditarod mushers out of Kaltag and aiming to become the first woman to capture an Iditarod title in 22 years, when the late great Susan Butcher was at the height of her career. Last year, Zirkle owned a 95-minute lead out of Kaltag -- and a three-hour lead over Willow's Dallas Seavey, who ran her down in the home stretch. But rugged Kaltag Crossing turned into a nightmare, even though Zirkle was the first musher into Unalakleet.

The run took Zirkle 13 hours, 33 minute -- allowing Dallas Seavey to close with 51 minutes, a key stretch that eventually led to his championship. 

This year, Zirkle has a one-hour, 53-minute lead over Aaron Burmeister of Nome -- although Zirkle may to stop and rest before her team gets too far out of Kaltag. She only stayed in Kaltag, the last checkpoint on the Yukon River, for 19 minutes, although she had stopped to rest on the Yukon River earlier Saturday. Zirkle also faces vastly different conditions than she did a year ago when brutal sub-zero temperatures down to minus-35 sapped every team, none moreso than Zirkle.  This year, the temperatures are a full 50 degrees warmer. 

Twenty-nine minutes behind Burmeister this year was early race leader Martin Buser of Big Lake, who stuggled with trail-breaking duties heading up the Yukon River, costing him a lead of about four hours.  A minute behind Buser was 2004 Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey of Sterling, and a minute behind Seavey was 25-year-old Jake Berkowitz of Big Lake and his freight train of 15 eager dogs.

But perhaps the scariest musher sat in sixth place.  That was defending Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey.  Even though Dallas had to replace key parts of his winning 2012 dog team, the 10 animals remaining were running hard and perhaps no musher is better equipped to help them than the former NCAA championship wrestler from Willow. 

"Dallas Seavy is suddenly making a move," wrote former Iditarod champion Joe Runyan on the Iditarod website. "This is the way he likes to play it.  He has stated on many occassions that he has studied times and wants to set up the team for a push in the last half of the race.  Maybe he’s making a play."

Dallas’ brother Danny Seavey, an Iditarod veteran himself, has been following the race and posting regularly on the Seavey’s IdidaRide Sled Dog Tours webpage.  Here’s his analysis:

“Dallas' predicament (is that) when he and (wife) Jen started their own kennel, they bought a bunch of 2- and 3-year-olds from our dad. Then they bought out Aaron Burmeister when he ‘retired.’ Dallas did an incredible job getting the most out of what he called the ‘scrubs,’ dogs who had been passed over by other teams.

“But those dogs have mostly retired now. Guiness was 8 last year.

“He knew he needed one, but Dallas didn't have a breeding program those first couple years. (Dallas and Jen) bought a house the second year, and then started the program that next year with several litters of puppies. Those puppies are just now old enough to make Dallas' team. They're great dogs, and probably will win the Iditarod someday.

“But the problem is, there was too big of a gap, and with Dallas' core already retired, he's essentially starting over. He's made all the right moves since, and has good crops of puppies, yearlings and 2-year-olds … but right now he's paying for that year or two with no puppies.

“So Dallas is actually doing phenomenally well. He has what we would consider a puppy team in good position for a top-10 and possibly top-5 performance. Given his skill level, I would imagine he's making sure those dogs come out of this race with a good experience, giving him the core he needs to make sure 2014 is a winning team again.”

Some 355 miles remained before the finish line in Nome.

 

Update 5:30 p.m., Saturday, March 9

For hundreds of rugged miles racing up the Yukon River from Anvik to Kaltag, four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser traveled alone.

But by mid-afternoon Saturday, as Buser rested his 11 remaining dogs in the village of 234 residents, Buser had company. Fellow former champion Mitch Seavey of Sterling pulled in at 3:37 p.m., a little more than an hour after Buser arrived. More remarkable, perhaps, was how quickly Seavey had covered some 60 miles of trail up the frozen river between Eagle Island, the previous checkpoint, and Kaltag, the last Yukon River stop before the trail turns inland.

Seavey made the trip in 9 hours, 17 minutes – a full 2 hours, 26 minutes faster than the fading Buser. Thirty minutes later, Aaron Burmeister of Nome checked in and two minutes behind him was Jake Berkowitz of Big Lake.

Both of the later two piloted big strings of dogs, with Burmeister behind 14 animals and Berkowitz still guiding 15 of his 16 starters. 

From Kaltag, the trail heads west overland through the Kaltag Portage to the wind-tossed Norton Sound city of Unalakleet, the gateway to the Iditarod’s final stretch run down the Seward Peninsula to the Nome finish line.

And a race that Buser looked to be running away with little more than a day ago was suddenly completely up in the air. And while some race fans might have predicted that defending champion Dallas Seavey would be the family member challenging for the lead heading into the final third of the race, there instead was 53-year-old Mitch. The 2004 champion was threatening to add his name to Iditarod lore as the oldest winner in race history, a title held by Jeff King, who took the last of his four victories at age 50.

So where’s Dallas?  And why is he not among the top-five mushers? The 26-year-old was in 11th place Saturday afternoon and still posting some of the fastest trail times. With several hundred miles left to race, he remained in the mix.

Dallas’ brother Danny Seavey, an Iditarod veteran himself, has been following the race and posting regularly on the Seavey’s IdidaRide Sled Dog Tours webpage.  Here’s his analysis:

“Dallas' predicament (is that) when he and (wife) Jen started their own kennel, they bought a bunch of 2- and 3-year-olds from our dad. Then they bought out Aaron Burmeister when he ‘retired.’ Dallas did an incredible job getting the most out of what he called the ‘scrubs,’ dogs who had been passed over by other teams.

“But those dogs have mostly retired now. Guiness was 8 last year.

“He knew he needed one, but Dallas didn't have a breeding program those first couple years. (Dallas and Jen) bought a house the second year, and then started the program that next year with several litters of puppies. Those puppies are just now old enough to make Dallas' team. They're great dogs, and probably will win the Iditarod someday.

“But the problem is, there was too big of a gap, and with Dallas' core already retired, he's essentially starting over. He's made all the right moves since, and has good crops of puppies, yearlings and 2-year-olds … but right now he's paying for that year or two with no puppies.

“So Dallas is actually doing phenomenally well. He has what we would consider a puppy team in good position for a top-10 and possibly top-5 performance. Given his skill level, I would imagine he's making sure those dogs come out of this race with a good experience, giving him the core he needs to make sure 2014 is a winning team again.”

Update 4:20 p.m., Saturday, March 9

ANVIK -- Canadian musher Gerry Willomitzer was searching for a dog on Saturday that escaped from his team between the Shageluk and Anvik checkpoints more than halfway through the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. 

The dog got free Friday, according to reports not yet confirmed by the Iditarod Trail Committee.

Willomitzer left the remote Iditarod checkpoint at 1:58 a.m. Friday for what for most mushers has been a seven-to nine-hour run to the next checkpoint of Shageluk. He has yet to officially check in at Shageluk, presumably because he searching the remote area for his dog. By race rules, mushers are not permitted to check in without all their dogs. Willomitzer’s GPS tracker shows him near Shageluk.

Willomitzer, 43, is an Iditarod veteran who works as a log building contractor in Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. He has finished four Iditarods, placing as high as 13th in 2010. He has earned the Humanitarian Award for superior dog care in both the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and the Copper Basin 300. 

Update 7:30 p.m., Friday, March 8

GRAYLING -- Front-running Iditarod mushers in Grayling packed their sleds with extra kibble Friday after word circulated that food drops might not make it to the next checkpoint of Eagle Island before the dogs.

Frustrated mushers began loading their sleds with dozens of pounds of kibble, concerned that their individual drop bags might not make it Eagle Island, a remote tent checkpoint 62 miles down the Yukon River from Grayling, on time.

Race leader Martin Buser of Big Lake piled extra food in his sled before pulling out of the checkpoint at 12:52 p.m. Young Jake Berkowitz raided the bags of scratched musher Scott Janssen to do the same. Aaron Burmeister planned to take 40 or 50 pounds of food, just to be safe.

In addition to kibble, the drop bags contain such supplies as dog booties and extra runner plastic.

Based on the times out of Grayling, Buser’s lead had ballooned to nearly five hours.  Aily Zirkle followed at 5:54 p.m., and Norwegian rookie Joar Leifseth Ulsom was a half-hour behind her.

The bags were stranded in Unalakleet because persistent poor weather kept flights grounded in the region for days. Pilots finally caught a break on Friday and were able to put the bags on a commercial flight to Kaltag, which has a large gravel airstrip of nearly 4,000 feet. From there, Iditarod officials planned to ferry the bags 60 miles south by snowmachine.

In Grayling, veteran musher DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow talked to Race Marshal Mark Nordman, who assured her that the drop bags would be in Eagle Island when the mushers pulled in. Jonrowe said she has full faith in Nordman but planned to take extra food anyway.

Jonrowe, running her 31st Iditarod, had concerns about the snowmachiners, who were to travel atop the frozen Yukon River south from Kaltag, one of the most remote sections of the Iditarod Trail. She was also worried about getting her own sled, overloaded with extra food, caught in the wet, deep snow.

“If you get one foot off the trail, you will get really stuck,” she said.

Multiple attempts to reach Nordman were unsuccessful Friday night. Iditarod spokeswoman Erin McLarnon said communication in the region had been spotty and that she had no official word on where the drop bags were located.

“For all we know they could be there already,” she said.

-- Loren Holmes and Suzanna Caldwell

Update 5 p.m., Friday, March 8 

ANVIK -- Rumors of a 50-degree day on the Yukon River may be a rumor becoming a reality.

Temperatures crept above freezing in here Friday, and mushers heading down the Iditarod Trail got a dose of spring weather. Trackers showed mushers sled temperatures ranging from 36 to 43 degrees. Those temps even made for some light rain in the Yukon River community of 80.

Water dripped and snow sloughed off of roofs, while mushers and fans trudged through dense, heavy snow. Rookie Joar Leifseth Ulsom of Norway was seen with garbage bags tucked into his boot liners. All his other shoes were wet. Either use plastic-covered liners or go barefoot, he decided.

While mushers may be soggy, it's the dogs they're concerned about. Warm temperatures might make it easier for mushers to do the tricky work of managing dog care and slipping booties on paws. But it also ensures slow going, as mushers keep their teams at a conservative pace to prevent over-heating.

But the race leaders didn't seem to mind. Martin Buser, who’s leading the pack out of Grayling, left Anvik at 10:17 a.m. in the heat of the day after his eight-hour mandatory rest.

Fellow four-time champ Lance Mackey is taking the opposite tactic, taking his mandatory rest during the day in an effort to leave later when temperatures drop. Heat was his biggest concern. “It's not supposed to rain in a dog sled race,” he said.  “Whatever,” he added. “Everyone's dealing with it.”

In Grayling, 18 miles up the trail, mushers we're confounded by the conditions. Jessie Royer, who trains in Montana where it’s often warm, said she was worried about the condition of her dogs' feet. Wet all the time, the webbing was cracking. She described it “like having you hands in dish soap all the time. My dogs are used to the (warm) weather, but this is even too much for them,” she said.

-- Suzanna Caldwell

Update 8 a.m., Friday, March 8

Alaska Dispatch’s Iditarod veteran Craig Medred notes that dogs -- like people -- can suffer intestinal problems from giardia, a waterborne parasite. It is not known if that is what afflicted race leader Martin Buser's dogs near Iditarod, but the problem has cropped up in the past.

Iditarod Chief Veterinarian Stu Nelson said Friday that metronidazole, a drug commonly known by the brand-name Flagyl, is allowed for treatment of the problem during the race. Water from the Iditarod River would be a classic place for man or beast to pick up the infection, long known as "beaver fever.''

It was so named because beavers are one of the main carriers of giardiasis, the parasite. And the area around Iditarod, a gold-mining ghost town, is almost as well known for its beaver as for the yellow metal that a century ago caused a stampede to the wilderness outpost.

The trail west from Ophir, another gold-mining ghost town, to Iditarod runs through Beaver Mountain Pass and drops onto the Beaver Flats and it runs along the barren flanks of the Beaver Mountains. All of those landmarks were, of course, named for the big, toothy, flat-tailed rodent common to the area. 

Despite the trouble, Buser was holding to roughly a three-hour lead Friday morning as the first musher to reach the Yukon River village of Anvik. 

-- Craig Medred

Update 8 a.m., Friday, March 8

Not pausing to rest, Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers, Alaska, ripped through the first Yukon River checkpoint of Anvik early Friday morning at dawn to seize the lead of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race.

Exactly that meant was hard to say. 

Martin Buser of Big Lake arrived at checkpoint five hours earlier, at 2:17 a.m., and had clearly decided to take his mandatory eight-hour stop at one of the Iditarod’s Yukon River checkpoints in Anvik.  He’ll be back on the trail before 11 a.m., behind a group of dogs he’s labeled a “rocket ship.”

However, Zirkle, last year's Iditarod runner-up, made the rugged run from Shageluk to Anvik faster than Buser, averaging 7.7 mph to Buser’s 6.9 mph.  Even though Zirkle and husband Allen Moore, the Yukon Quest champion, live in Two Rivers, where winters can often be brutally cold, the couple’s dogs have excelled in sled-dog races this season with warm temperatures – specifically the Quest and the Copper Basin 300.

“The most important trend I am seeing is the speed of Buser,” former Iditarod champion Joe Runyan wrote in the Iditarod Insider website. “It looks like he is actually faster than Aaron Burmeister, who at this moment is about 26 miles behind. I have been watching the tracker from time to time and Aaron slid a mile or two over the last few hours.  This is a huge confirmation that Buser’s radical move from the start to Rohn didn’t hurt team speed. Martin left the start chute and drove his dogs 160 miles with only about two hours rest.” 

Girdwood musher Nicolas Petit continued his remarkable Iditarod, reaching Anvik in third place at 7:34 a.m.  Just six minutes behind him was Norwegian rookie Joar Leifseth Ulsom with 14 dogs, and his trail speed into Anvik was slightly faster that Zirkle’s.

Aaron Burmeister of Nome was running fifth, with 15 dogs, and Jake Berkowitz of Big Lake was sixth, behind all 16 of his starters.  

Update 3 a.m., Friday, March 8

The Iditarod has reached the mighty Yukon.

At 2:17 a.m. Friday morning, race leader Martin Buser blew into Anvik about 25 miles ahead of Mitch Seavey, back in Shageluk. Buser's team was averaging speeds faster than 6.6 mph along some of the trail's most desolate and untraveled terrain.

But Buser's presence was noisy. The four-time Iditarod champion had music blaring from his sled bag – Bob Marley, Bob Dylan and the Allman Brothers Band – as he bedded down his dogs, taking time to massage their shoulders and apply minty ointment to their feet before heading to the Anvik city building to celebrate with a five-course meal.

The four-time champion got to enjoy the meal – which included king crab stuffed portobello mushrooms, roast duck salad and a 14-ounce ribeye steak – with his wife, Kathy Chapoton, who is traveling the trail with a group of snowmachiners. He was grateful for her presence, if only to have someone to share the meal with, saying trying to eat the extra large meal alone is the worst.

Buser should know. He's been first the Yukon before – twice, in both 1996 and 2002.

Buser made speedy work on the trail into Anvik, despite his dogs being slowed down for the first 35 miles from a bug they contracted from drinking water in Iditarod. Normally mushers just melt snow, but this year there was a water hole. Buser suspects the water contained some sort of virus or bacteria.

While it's better now, he knows the first few teams out of the Iditarod checkpoint, including fellow champion Lance Mackey, fed their dogs the water and wonders if they might have problems as well.

There was concern Thursday over how the trail had set up. Warm temperatures had mushers worried they would be in for soft, slushy trail. But Buser said it was far better than that. Below freezing temps near Anvik Friday morning helped firm the trail up, giving Buser a superhighway leading into the checkpoint.

The team looked spunky coming into Anvik, trotting briskly into the checkpoint, then hastily lapping up water and kibble from Buser.

“They think they're back in Big Lake,” Buser said. “They're just loving it.”

Poor weather forecast for the area by the National Weather Service hasn’t slowed Buser's march significantly; the four-time champion appeared in firm control of the race.

Warm temperatures had left Buser shoeless and forging through a river of overflow 10 miles before arriving in Iditarod 12 hours earlier.

While Buser might have advantage thanks to training in the relative “banana belt” of Southcentral Alaska, he wasn't too concerned over what the storm could bring. He said during the Paul Johnson Memorial 450 in January, temperatures were down to 100 below zero with windchill.

Buser took a close second in a truncated version of that race, which saw mushers sprint the final 40 miles from Shaktoolik to Unalakleet.

Buser described his race so far as being in a vacuum, since making a bold play early in the race by running straight from Willow to Rohn. He's seen few of the top contenders as they pushed past him to take their 24-hour rests later down the trail. But with leaders coming off of their 24-hour rests, the game is on.

“Now we're in neutral territory,” he said. “Now it's just down to dog care.”

-- Suzanna Caldwell

Update 4:30 p.m., Thursday, March 7

Early Iditarod Sled Dog Race leader Martin Buser from Big Lake is back where he started from – leading the 1,000-mile race across Alaska. The four-time champ, who shocked everyone by taking off from the race's Willow restart and essentially going 180 miles nonstop to the outpost of Rohn in the Alaska Range, has parlayed that bold opening move into a lead of several hours.

As fellow four-time champ Lance Mackey and others rested and waited out their 24-hour mandatory stops at the halfway mark in the ghost town of Iditarod, Buser pulled in, rested his team for four hours Thursday afternoon and was gone. Buser had chosen to take his rest at Rohn after that long run from Willow up and over the Alaska Range. Nearly 50 teams passed him while he paused.

Most of them are unlikely to see Buser again until Nome. That also happens to be the hometown of Aaron Burmeister, now Buser's now closest competitor. Burmeister did his 24-hour rest in the tiny community of Takotna along with a bunch of others who decided to stop there rather than press on to Iditarod with Mackey and Jeff King from Denali Park, another four-time champ.

The decision to stop appears to have paid off. Burmeister pulled into Iditarod shortly before 1 p.m. He was about 3 hours and 40 minutes behind Buser. He was expected to rest his team several hours before hitting the trail, but that would still put him ahead of Mackey and King, who need to stay until sometime after 8 p.m. to compete their 24-hour layover.

By the time, they leave they are likely to be behind a whole string of teams. Mitch Seavey from Sterling, the 2004 Iditarod champ, pulled into Iditarod about an hour and a half behind Burmeiser. And Aily Zirkle of Two Rivers, the runner-up in the race last year, didn't look to be far behind him. A number of others who finished their 24-hour rests in Takotna were close behind Zirkle.

It appears Mackey, King and Sonny Lindner from Two Rivers, who joined the Iditarod campout, might have as many as a dozen teams in front of them before they leave for the long, lonely, 55-mile run to Shageluk, a small Native village. Trail conditions between the two checkpoints are always iffy. There is no regular snowmobile traffic east from Shageluk to Takotna to pack in a trail. 

As of a week ago, there was no trail. Trailbreakers for the Iditarod will have gone across to Shageluk ahead of Buser, but how well the trail will have set up behind them is hard to say. It usually firms up enough in the cold to provide descent sledding for the first few teams, but can turn to sugar as traffic breaks apart the snow. That could play to Buser's advantage, making things harder for the chase teams.

But with the weather unseasonably warm -- the temperature was only four degrees below freezing at 2 p.m. in Shageluk and was expected to reach the low 30s on Friday -- There is really no telling what could happen to the trail.

-- Craig Medred

Update 10:30 a.m., Thursday, March 7

TAKOTNA -- Two boxes of pie filling didn't make it here for various reasons before the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, the first time in memory that has happened. No matter. The community of 50 residents cleaned out cupboards to make sure mushers would be treated to around-the-clock pies, one of the 1,000-mile race’s most-anticipated rituals. 

One of the boxes from Anchorage got lost in the shuffle, with bad flying weather and once-a-week mail service mucking things up further, according to Iditarod checker Nell Huffman, who's lived in Takotna 27 years. She quickly dispatched someone to buy all the pie filling in McGrath -- some $250 worth. That didn't make it here, either.

So instead, the community of Takotna cleared out their cupboards, taking whatever canned fruit and leftover pie filling they could find to make the 100 or so pies that are a constant presence and a hallmark of the checkpoint.

There're still apple, pear, peanut butter and cherry pies in rotation. With at least three pies on the table at all times, you'd never know there had been pie-fillings crisis.

Huffman said for some Takotna children, seeing families make pie out of actual fruit -- and not just from canned pie pilling -- has been an eye opener.

"The young kids are like, 'You can make pies out of fruit?'" she said.

Latest word from the Iditarod communications operator Troy Zachary is that the missing pie filling might be headed to Iditarod by mistake -- though it’s not going to do much good in the ghost town. And, really, who knows?

"They could be from one end (of the trail) to the other," he said. "But they're definitely not here."

No matter for Huffman and the rest of Takotna, The fillings will make it when they make it, and there’s no question Takotna will be ready next year.

"They will end up in the right place eventually," Huffman said. "It's pure sugar. It'll keep."

Update 10:00 p.m., Wednesday, March 6

Four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey pulled into the ghost town of Iditarod at 8:36 p.m. Wednesday to claim the  Dorothy Page Halfway Award of $3,000 in gold nuggets. The money may take some of the sting out of last month's Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race between Whitehorse and Fairbanks. Mackey is also a four-time champion of that race, but he scratched this year after falling far behind. His dog team in the Iditarod is largely a different crew of canines that he dubbed "my JV (junior varsity)" earlier Wednesday. So far, at least, the youngsters are more than holding their own with the big dogs.

Mackey and his 13-dog team didn't burn up the trail covering the 80 miles from Ophir to Iditarod, averaging about 5.4 mph.  He may have stopped enroute to rest or feed his dogs. 

Three other mushers were also on their way to Iditarod, including two other four-time champs, Jeff King of Denali Park and Martin Buser of Big Lake. Sonny Lindner of Fairbanks is the third.

Buser led the first 24 hours of the Iditarod after being the first musher to leave the start line in Willow.  Then he took his mandatory 24-hour layover in Rohn, dropping from first place to 50th as dozens of mushers passed him by.  But in the 12 hours since he finished his layover, Buser has passed 46 of those mushers to move into fourth place.  When all the racers finish their 24-hour stops, Buser should be comfortably ahead. 

Update 2:40 p.m., Wednesday, March 6

Most mushers consider Willow’s Ramey Smyth a force to be reckoned with on the Iditarod Trail, no matter how far back he’s running. He’s had the fastest finish from the final checkpoint of Safety to the Nome finish line a record seven times.

But in Nikolai on Tuesday, Smyth wasn't feeling that confidence. He was visibly frustrated, quietly tending to the 13 dogs left in his Iditarod team.

Smyth doesn't think he'll be entering the winner's circle this year. Part of the reason is the loss of one of his main leaders, Barley, who the musher was forced to drop Skwentna when veterinarians detected an elevated heart rate. Smyth insists Barley was fine, and that the rookie vet just “scared the crap” out of the 5-year-old dog who has previously finished two Iditarods and one Yukon Quest. Smyth called Barley one of the most “solid dogs in his team.

“It's completely ridiculous,” Smyth said. “That one should be here helping lead the team.”

Smyth said planned to file a protest against the call. Race Marshal Mark Nordman said that will be done in writing once Smyth gets to Nome. Regardless of the outcome of the protest, there's no way Smyth can get the dog back in his team now.

Smyth, running his 19th Iditarod, is known as the “blue-collar musher.” What he lacks in flashy gear he makes up for with sheer grit. With thousands of dollars at stake, every place matters for Smyth.

“(Barley) was going to help put food in my kid's mouths,” he said. “That's the way I feel about it.”

-- Suzanna Caldwell

Update 1 p.m., Wednesday, March 6

Nikolai, the first Alaska Native village on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, is known for its hospitality and social atmosphere. Locals in the tiny Athabascan community of 100 do their best to make checkpoint friendly. Traditional tents -- white canvas and strung between spruce poles -- welcome mushers and volunteers. Doughnuts, flown in fresh from Anchorage, don’t hurt, either.

The friendliness is appreciated by the mushers, many of whom arrive battered from 75 miles of rugged trail across the Farewell Burn after leaving the Rohn checkpoint at the foot of the Alaska Range.

As the final third of the mushers made their way to the Kuskokwim River checkpoint Tuesday night, many of them tugged at bits of their sleds, making sure the jury-rigged parts were holding up after a tough trip.

Karin Hendrickson asked for extra hose clamps, hoping to add more sturdiness to the back of her sled. She slammed into a tree branch 10 miles past an ice flow known as the Post River glacier, knocking her sled apart. She was able to rig it back together with clamps, tape and string, though she wasn't sure how long it would hold, and she doesn't have a backup sled.

“It's not going all the way to Nome like that,” she said. “So it should be interesting.”

Anna Berington does have a backup sled, and she was smiling and laughing as she snacked her dogs late Tuesday night. Berington mangled her sled coming into Rainy Pass, putting it together with tape, twine and an alder branch. She was grateful it held up going over the Burn – even a narrow section called the Buffalo Tunnels that can be precarious.

Kelly Maixner looked like he’d been in a knife fight, his fleece undershirt ripped through the middle. Maixner said his snow hook wiggled off his sled and got stuck on a tree as the musher navigated through some of the dirt and ice of the trail. While trying to get the hook off the tree, Maixner was thrown into it by his moving team. A tree branch caught his shirt, slicing it in the middle.

“It was pretty gnarly back there,” he said. “It's the worst I've seen it and I've done it three times.”

Update 10:50 a.m., Wednesday, March 6

He’s b-a-a-a-a-ck.  Not that four-time Iditarod champion was missing entirely, but after two consecutive sub-par Iditarod finishes and a rare scratch last month in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race, dog mushing fans began wondering if Lance’s Mackey’s considerable skills and charm were eroding.

But on Wednesday morning, Mackey’s familiar visage was at the front of a pack of 64 mushers moving towards Nome. Mackey and his 13 dogs pulled out of the ghost town of Ophir at 5:45 a.m. to begin a push for Iditarod, a tough 80-mile haul through some of the most remote terrain in Alaska.  He only stayed at the Ophir checkpoint 15 minutes, suggesting he’ll be camping with his dogs along the trail as the heat of the day increases. 

“It's hard to sit around when there's already teams on the trail and some Swiss guy is already taking his 24,” Mackey said in reference to Big Lake musher Martin Buser, who was the first musher to complete the mandatory 24-hour layover all racers must take somewhere between Willow and Nome.  Another consideration, perhaps: a prize of $3,000 in gold nuggets awaits the first musher to Iditarod, the halfway point in this year’s race.

As dawn broke, no musher had yet chased Mackey down the trail. More than two hours later, Sonny Lindner, 63, of Two Rivers gave chase.  Lindner had already made a huge push up through the standings; he was the last musher to leave the Willow restart line on Sunday. “I enjoy running the Iditarod,” Lindner notes. “It’s become a habit.”

Meanwhile, the only musher to have completed his 24-hour layover, Martin Buser of Big Lake, was starting to march up through the standings. He was 39th into McGrath, and is expected to pass dozens of mushers who will shortly begin their day-long rests.

But for now, Mackey was leading the charge.  “The stuff he's overcome -- that makes him the toughest (musher),” 2012 Iditarod Rookie of the Year Brent Sass of Fairbanks said before the race. “No matter where he places or what he does on the trail.”

Update 7:00 p.m., Tuesday, March 5

Dallas Seavey may be 10 minutes ahead of his planned race pace into Nikolai, but the defending Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion isn't concerned. If anything he's hoping his team can dial it down a bit.

“Nothing would make me happier than to see this group of dogs waddle out of here,” he said.

Seavey and dozens of other mushers rested their dogs on the sunny banks of the Kuskokwim River Tuesday afternoon. Dogs splayed out on their backs, paws toward the sky, savoring the sunshine and warmth afforded by temperatures hovering in the 30s at the village checkpoint some 260 miles down the trail from Sunday’s start in Willow.

Canadian Gerry Willomitzer got into the checkpoint at 1 p.m., about an hour later than he would have liked. Warm temperatures slowed down his team as it crossed the Farewell Burn. Despite early reports of plentiful snow in the Burn, mushers reported plenty of bare trail between miles of snowy trails and tricky-to-navigate ice.

Willomitzer said the snow on the trail was recent and wind-blown, slowing  the dogs.

“We need colder temperatures for it to set up,” he said. “Snow is not always better for dogs, as ironic as that might be.”

Jessie Royer said she is exactly where she wants to be. Her strong team has been cruising, she said, heading through the Dalzell Gorge yesterday in the daylight. She it was the first time she'd done that section of trail in the daylight and described it as fun. In fact, the 10-time finisher said she took video of the ride all the way down.

While a good run is exciting, the mushers are largely serious. Royer said that after taking her mandatory 24-hour rest in Takotna, her race plans will be flexible, depending on trail and weather conditions. The Yukon River can get warm in the day, she said, if she’s not adaptable, she won’t finish high.

Lance Mackey is already adapting, though. The four-time champion pushed out of Nikolai at 2 p.m. in fourth place, headed toward McGrath.

“It's hard to sit around when there's already teams on the trail and some Swiss guy is already taking his 24,” Mackey said. 

-- Suzanna Caldwell

Update 2:40 p.m., Tuesday, March 5

Between dawn and midday, the small village of Nikolai on the south fork of the Kuskokwim River saw its population boom on Tuesday as a herd of mushers rolled into town. 

Aaron Burmeister of Nenana checked in first at 8:11 a.m., followed by four-time champion Lance Mackey 41 minutes later.  By early afternoon, some 30 mushers had crossed the often-rugged Farewell Burn, site of a huge forest fire decades ago, and reached Nikolai.  More were coming.

But some were departing, too.  Burmeister headed towards the next checkpoint of McGrath at 12:25 p.m., and Aliy Zirkle of Two River gave chase at 1:13 p.m. The Interior Alaska town of McGrath, population 348, is the biggest community Iditarod mushers encounter between the start line in Willow and the city of Unalakleet along the Norton Sound coast.

While Burmeister is farthest down the trail, the only musher with a check mark next to his name on the official standings may be the actual leader.  That’s Martin Buser of Big Lake, who sped out to an early and large lead before deciding to park his dogs in Rohn for a 24-hour rest. That’s earlier than most mushers take the mandatory rest that every competitor must use between Willow and Nome. Buser completed his 24-hour layover at 12:03 p.m. and headed back onto the trail with his full team of 16 dogs still in harness.  He’d gone from first place to 50th while resting.

That will change soon – and dramatically – as other mushers begin their breaks.

Update 11 a.m., Tuesday, March 5

PUNTILLA LAKE -- As most mushers charge toward Nikolai and beyond, a few back-of-the-packers are still making their way toward Rohn.

Two teams were left in the Rainy Pass checkpoint Tuesday morning. Newton Marshall, a Jamaican musher taking a team of Kelley Griffin's puppies to Nome this year, called the trail coming into the Puntilla Lake checkpoint “crazy.” Some mushers complained about deep, two-foot ditches through parts of the trail, with nothing but sugar snow at the bottom.

“There's probably 100 ditches out there,” Marshall said. “It's like going through a tunnel.”

Marshall dropped one dog, Dixie, who clipped her toenail coming into the checkpoint. The small dog held her paw gingerly as veterinarians examined her.

This is Marshall's return to the trail after scratching in 2011. He said his team caught kennel cough that year, and he was forced to scratch in Anvik.

He said while he's concerned his about his team not eating as much as he would like them to, he's confident the team will pick up once they get out of the deeply rutted trail piercing the Alaska Range.
 “(My schedule) is all messed up,” he said. “Just got to get out of the hills and rolling. Then it should be better.”

The trail was also wreaking havoc on some of the other mushers. David Sawatzky declared his 24-hour layover in Rainy Pass early Tuesday morning, hoping to heal a pulled hamstring before heading down the trail.

Cindy Abbott, too, suffered a strained muscle just 20 miles outside of the restart in Willow. The rookie musher, 54, has described herself as the “greenest of the green” in terms of mushing experience. Abbott spent the last two years commuting from her home Irvine, Calif., to train with Lance Mackey. She's running to promote Rare Disease Awareness, as Abbott suffers from Wegner’s Granulomatosis, a disease that only 1 in 100,000 people will be diagnosed with each year. Functionally blind in one eye, Abbott knows a thing or two about dealing with aches and pains, though she worried early on that the strain might be too much.

But as she readied her team to go Tuesday, a group of 14 anxious, yelping huskies -- some so excited they chewed through multiple necklines – Abbott walked with only the slightest of limps.

“Either it's getting better or I'm learning to manage it better,” she said.

-- Suzanna Caldwell 

 

Update 12:55 a.m., Tuesday, March 5

If politics make strange bedfellows, then the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race makes strange camping partners.

Weeks and months before the start of the race, mushers put together a race plan that may include trailside camping instead of checkpoint rest.  Veteran mushers know that some areas are better for camping than others, and they may even have a particular section picked out due to protection from wind, exposure to afternoon sun, ease of parking, etc.  

It is always interesting to see who ends up camping next to whom during the course of the race.  Unlikely friendships emerge and unexpected alliances are forged at campfire storytime. On the first night of the race, mushers clustered along the Yentna River: At mile 55 was father and son Mitch and Dallas Seavey joined by Canadian Gerry Willomitzer. Two miles up the trail were Fairbanks neighbors Ken Anderson and Lance Mackey joined by Jodi Bailey and Jason Mackey.  At mile 60 the “Mushing Mortician” Scott Janssen was camped alongside Paul Gebhardt and Kristy Berington of Kasilof.  

Everyone enjoyed themselves, along the trail and far from the hustle and bustle of checkpoints. They are all still fresh from the start -- not as sleep deprived and groggy as they inevitably will become.  

For all the recent high-tech advances in the Iditarod, including Insider videos and GPS trackers, at least the mushers can enjoy one aspect of the race, alone and among their peers as they consider the challenges of the trail ahead. 

-- Zack Steer

Update, 6:40 p.m., Monday March 4

While Martin Buser rests in Rohn after making a massive push to get there, things are relatively quiet across the rest of the Iditarod Trail. Mushers streamed into Puntilla Lake Monday afternoon, all but a few pushing through to catch Buser.

Those that stayed behind reported good – albeit punchy trail. A few mushers gingerly massaged doggy shoulders to work out any problems from the trail. Balmy temperatures for early March in Alaska have prevailed so far -- hovering in the mid-30s Monday -- have kept dogs healthy and on the trail, according to veterinarians. With more than 40 teams into Rainy Pass checkpoint Monday, less than 10 dogs had been dropped, according to race vets.

2012 Rookie of the Year Brent Sass pulled into the checkpoint with two dogs in his sled bag. He said both had struggled a bit in the slog toward the checkpoint and he carried them the last 10 miles.

"That was a wild ride," he said. "We only tipped over a couple of times."

Those tips for Sass, however, came in the final miles of trail, not over the notorious Happy River steps, the steep, switchback section of trail known for spilling mushers on the ride down.

No mushers reported any sort of difficultly navigating the steps. In his third attempts through the steps, musher Nicolas Petit isn't sure what the fuss is all about. In all his attempts through the area, he's never had to struggle.

"There's too much snow," he said. "It's kind of boring."

Top mushers had begun pulling out of Rainy Pass. Most – including Aliy Zirkle, DeeDee Jonrowe and Jeff King – rested about five hours before heading through the pass toward Rohn and daunting Dalzell Gorge.

Update, 4:45 p.m., Monday March 4

RAINY PASS -- A herd of top mushers set out from here Monday afternoon to chase Iditarod runaway leader Martin Buser of Big Lake, who'd been resting at the Rohn checkpoint since shortly after sunup.

Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof led the charge at 12:32 p.m., followed minutes later by four-time champion Lance Mackey of Fairbanks. By 4:21 p.m., another 13 mushers has pulled their snow hooks for the 40-mile journey out of the pass.

Among the chasers were Aily Zirkle, last year's runner-up who was running ninth, with veterans DeeDee Jonrowe and Jeff King right behind her.

Expect Buser, a four-time champion himself, to set out soon across the Farewell Burn for Nikolai, some 75 miles to the west.  Given Buser's tendency to run long with little rest, some race watchers expected him to push on past Nikolai to McGrath or Takotna before taking a break. 

Update, 1:15 p.m., Monday, March 4

RAINY PASS -- Planes and dog teams descended on this checkpoint 137 miles from the Willow restart Monday morning, bringing a  flurry of barking dogs, the ripping of polyethylene-blend drop bags and planes and helicopters from seemingly every direction.

What was the biggest buzz amid the chaos and noise? What’s Martin Buser up to? 

The four-time champion cruised through the checkpoint at 5:38 a.m. with 16 yipping dogs that surged against the tug line, despite running for over 130 miles with no serious rest. He's hours ahead of his nearest competitor.

That's left others contemplating Buser's strategy. DeeDee Jonrowe, a longtime friend, said Buser never indicated he might head all the way toward Rohn in one run. “This is new to me,” she said. She noted that Buser expreseds confidence in his team, a mix of veteran dogs trained by and him, and his son Rohn, who withdrew from the competition just days before the start. Buser said Rohn's decision to withdraw was to give Martin the strongest team possible.

The trail is reported to be punchy but fast, something Buser's speedy team – known for moving swiftly when conditions are prime – clearly likes.

“You know, he's decided to do something really different with them,” Jonrowe said. “I am surprised, however.”

Other mushers seemed less impressed. Aliy Zirkle, 2012 runner-up and the third musher into Rainy Pass, was surprised to hear Buser had pushed so hard.

“He's running like Hugh Neff,” Zirkle said, making a jibe at the 2012 Yukon Quest champ famous for pushing the pace early, only to later crash hard toward the end of the race.

-- Suzanna Caldwell

Update, 11:20 a.m., Monday, March 4

For the second time in three years, Big Lake musher Martin Buser is playing catch-me-if-you-can with the rest of the mushers in the Iditarod field.  Rolling out of the Alaska Range just as the heat of the day was creeping up, Buser pulled into Rohn at 9:53 a.m. 

In his rear-view mirror was what's often the toughest part of the course. And he'd reached Rohn before any of the legitimate chasers had even left the previous checkpoint of Rainy Pass, the highest point in the Iditarod with an elevation of more than 3,000 feet. In fact, the only team to pull out of Rainy Pass belonged to Matt Failor, who was running what is supposed to be the "B" team of the Buser kennel.

Buser, make the run from Rainy Pass at a speed of 8.3 mph -- far slower than he ran the first portion of the 1,000-mile race from Willow to Nome, but still a good clip.

Among the mushers resting in Rainy Pass were last year's runner-up, Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers, and two-time runner-up DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow. Both pulled in between 9 and 10 a.m. 

Two years ago, Buser built up a big early lead, too. He was ahead of eventual winner John Baker of Kotzebue by more than three hours by the time Buser took his 24-hour break in Takotna.  From there, though, he dropped steadily to barely make the Top 20.

Asked by a KNOM reporter in Nome if he "messed up" by starting so fast over the first four days, Buser said no. The problem, he said, was that he ran in the heat of the day and ran without booties, which allowed his  dogs' feet to get infected, leaving the musher to nurse sore paws the rest of the way.

This year, by contrast, most of Buser's running has coming during the evening.

Update, 6:30 a.m., Monday, March 4:

PUNTILLA LAKE -- If there's any sort of record for getting into Rainy Pass early, Martin Buser is smashing it.

Checkers and race judges were roused from bed early Monday morning, when Buser and his 16 dogs sped through the Puntilla Lake checkpoint 5:38 a.m., hours earlier than expected. Generally, the first racers arrive at the checkpoint no earlier than 7 a.m.

Buser, 55, was clearly in race mode, immediately calling for a vet to check out his team 16 dogs, who pulled at their tug lines and howled during the two minutes the Big Lake musher spent in the checkpoint.

Buser is hours ahead of the nearest competition, grabbing just one drop bag before heading down the trail toward Rohn.

Since leaving Willow Sunday, Buser has gone nearly the entire 137 miles of trail with only a few short breaks. The conditions –  mild weather and a good firm trail – are ideal for the four-time champ, known for his speedy dogs that thrive on good trail.

According to analyst Sebastian Schnuelle's blog on the Iditarod website: "I am really wondering what Martin's plan is? . . .  Run nonstop from the start line to Rohn? . . . Rumours have it, that he might 24 there. But that would not make sense neither, as than he would leave in the heat of the day again. What would make the most sense, if he now runs to Rohn, then stays until it cools down and then continues (in)  early evening. But than again, with a running schedule like this, conventional thinking might be out of the window. It sure makes the race exiting right off the get-go."

Update, 9:30 p.m., Sunday, March 3:

First on the trail, first to Skwentna.  Martin Buser of Big Lake, the first starter, was the first musher to reach the twinkling lights Skwentna Sunday night, pulling in to the first major Iditarod Trail checkpoint at 8:45 p.m.  For the four-time champion, 72 miles were already behind him, with about 900 remaining before the lights of Nome appear.

Buser reached Skwentna at the junction of the Yentna and Skwentna rivers with the same 16 dogs that started the race some 70 miles back in Willow about six hours earlier. According to the Iditarod’s GPS trackers, which are in the sled of every musher, Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof and Michelle Phillips of the Yukon Territory were close behind.

Buser was part of a group of racers going fast from the get-go. He covered the 42 miles from the start to Yentna at an average speed of 11.45 mph. Only fellow 50-somethings DeeDee Jonrowe, 59, of Willow (11.72 mph) and Paul Gebhardt, 56, of Kasilof (11.61 mph), were faster out of the gate. Both Jonrowe and Gebhart are two-time runners-up in world’s premier long-distance sled-dog race, and they’re well aware that their window of opportunity is tiny and narrowing.  Jeff King, a four-time winner, reins as the oldest Iditarod champion at age 50. 

Of course, it is very early in this year’s mushing marathon.  Typically, the first racer to Skwentna means little.  For one thing, the mushers leave the start line at two-minute intervals -- so Sonny Lindner of Two Rivers, the last musher to start, didn’t pull his snow hook until 4:10 p.m. By then, Buser had already been racing for two hours.

Last year, the first musher to Skwentna was Ray Redington Jr., who wound up sixth in Nome.  Second to Skwentna last year was Jim Lanier, the 72-year-old retired pathologist from Chugiak who has contested the Iditarod for five decades. Lanier managed to claim the $3,000 halfway prize as the first musher to Cripple -- largely by delaying his mandatory 24-hour layover until that checkpoint.  He faded over the second half of the race, finishing 33rd.

Some mushers rest a few hours in Skwentna, others move down the trail to camp in a quieter location or push on another 40 miles to the next checkpoint of Finger Lake.