Buser unleashes Iditarod strategy that was 8 months in the making

Kyle Hopkins
Bill Roth

ROHN -- Recharged by a full day's rest in this woodsy cabin checkpoint, Martin Buser's 16 dogs screamed to leave.

As the 54-year-old left the thick black spruce trees and sawblade peaks of the Alaska Range on Tuesday afternoon, lead dogs named for Olympians Kikkan Randall and Lindsey Vonn bounding in the harness, Buser was jolly. He aimed to change the way people race the Iditarod. One more time. "I took my 24-hour (rest) here hoping that I go back to starting speed," he said. "And if I run a well-executed race, they might stay fast for a long time."

Although Buser is not the closest to Nome, he is in the best position to reach the finish line first. An unprecedented dash from the starting line in Willow to Rohn -- officially about 177 miles away -- kept Buser and kennel teammate Matt Failor on the trail while other mushers slept.

No other team has completed the 24-hour rest that all racers must take somewhere along the trail. The strategy was a well-kept secret that surprised top rivals despite months of planning and training, Buser said Monday.

"This is not something I dreamed up yesterday," Buser told the Daily News in Rohn, wood smoke pouring from the nearby mushers' tent. "This is something I've been working on for eight months."

Certainly other mushers have tried aggressive dashes to start past races, forgoing early rest in hopes long breaks later on the trail will allow their dogs to regain enough speed for the finish. This is different, Buser said.

"People have tried that. They have gone to Finger Lake and taken a break and then fallen flat on their face. I could fall on my face too. But it's a new move," he said.

The roughly 20-hour run to Rohn was interrupted only by booty changes, lots of feeding but minimal rest. Buser knew his young team could make it. He's been thinking and training for this unprecedented rabbit run to Rohn since the summer.

The hard part is over, Failor said in Rohn. Now Buser will know whether it all paid off.



"More importantly is what's going to happen in the next couple hundred miles," Buser said. "Seeing whether they can maintain a fast pace, and then hopefully they can maintain a fast pace all the way to Nome."

Many of Buser's team ran the 1,000-mile trail last year with 29-year-old Failor, who has mirrored Buser's unprecedented schedule with a slightly older, slightly slower team of Buser kennel dogs.

"(The strategy) is going to work," said Failor, who left Rohn two hours and 20 minutes after his mentor, finishing his own one-day layover. "It'll pay off."

"I mean his dogs almost ripped that tree down trying to get to a squirrel like 10 hours ago," Failor said.

Buser isn't so sure. He's finished 28 more Iditarods than Failor, he said. There are no certainties in the race.

His huskies include the 2-year-old litter mates named for Olympians -- Rosey Fletcher and an orange husky, Shaun White, run further back in the team -- plus dogs named after friends and a "Jungle Book" character, Shere Khan.

The team is a combination of his own team and the squad Buser's son, Rohn, named for the checkpoint, had planned to run before withdrawing from the race in February. Failor said picking an all-star team from the two Buser lineups could prove pivotal in delivering Martin another championship.

The elder Buser would never have kept all the best dogs for himself if Rohn was running, Failor said. "He loves his son more than he loves his team."



Racing with the pick of the Buser kennel, Martin's latest scheme has been the talk of the Iditarod at all points along the trail.

Younger mushers puzzled over the strategy over the breakfast table in Finger Lake, worried that if Buser succeeds, all future winners will have to skip traditional rest stops at early checkpoints like Finger, about 110 miles into the race.

"Holy s---," race leader Aaron Burmeister, a 36-year-old Nome musher gunning for his first win, said when he learned of Buser's speed early in the race.

Winning this, his 30th attempt, would be particularly sweet, Buser said. He turns 55 at the end of the month. "That would be really cool, making me the oldest champion."

"I want to win before my body gives out," he said.

Although Buser led the 2011 Iditarod more than 300 miles into the race before fading closer to Nome, betting on unorthodox runs has paid off for the Swiss-born musher in other races.

Back when the race was slower, people often took their mandatory 24-hour rest in Rohn, Buser said. But they took it on Wednesday, he said. Not beginning Monday morning.

"Then, in 1992, some crazy guy went all the way to Nikolai and took his (mandatory 24-hour layover) there," he said. "And all the people here doing the 24 here, they said that can't be done. 'What the heck is he doing?' That guy won the race."

You don't have to be an Iditarod historian to know that guy was Buser. It was the first of his four Iditarod championships.



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