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Exciting Iditarod omelet has team after team ping-ponging into lead

Zack Steer
Martin Buser's dogs were leaping at the start of the 2013 Iditarod -- and they haven't slowed much now that the race is underway. Loren Holmes photo

Some people like their eggs over easy. This year, mushers are serving up an Iditarod omelet with everything mixed inside. Slow and steady. Sprints to the front. Cagey moves between checkpoints and thought-provoking strategies highlight what is shaping up as one of the most exciting competitions in years. 

Since the start, there has been a new race leader out of just about every checkpoint. For the most part, mushers will begin taking their 24-hour layovers today. A few will push on to Iditarod or beyond, looking for the $3,000 in gold nuggets awarded to the first musher to reach the official halfway point. 

Who is up and who is down?  At this point in the race, it’s hard to tell who’s actually “leading,” as start-time differentials and 24-hour layovers skew mushers’ trail positions over a span of almost 200 trail miles. In general, the order of the top six looks something like:  Martin Buser of Big Lake, Aaron Burmeister of Nenana, Aily Zirkle of Two Rivers, Mitch Seavey of Sterling, Lance Mackey of Fairbanks and Jake Berkowitz of Big Lake.  There are 10 other mushers close behind and within striking distance.

Buser completed his 24-hour layover in Rohn and has begun passing the race field as he works to regain the lead he snatched during the first day of racing.  Expect to see Buser’s name atop the leaderboard by mid-day Thursday. Iditarod fans are wondering if Buser’s bold experiment in race strategy will work, if he can keep up his dog team’s speed over the remaining 700 miles.

A couple other mushers are making statements with fast run times and well-thought-out plans, too.  Only three years separated from his unprecedented string of four consecutive Iditarod victories, it is amazing to think that Mackey’s push to the front in an unexpected surprise.  Mackey is running a strong race, and his dogs appear to be back in top form.  Mackey is showing signs of his former confidence and swagger, a scary thought for competitors who were hoping his dominating reign had come to an end.  Mackey has had a challenging winter, including a dismal performance in last month’s Yukon Quest sled dog race, where he scratched midway.  For a four-time champ, Mackey feels like he’s been underrated and has lots to prove.  Don’t count him out.

Burmeister continues to lead the pack of “traditionalists” that include Zirkle and Mitch Seavey, and has opted to take his 24 hour layover with the bulk of contenders basking in the warm hospitality of Takotna.  Weekday church service will be held for mushers only, as the Takotna chapel is used as a sleeping area for trail-weary racers.  A few mushers may be looking for divine intervention while in Takotna, but most are just hoping their dogs eat well and bounce back. 

Mushers yearn for a boring race without drama or incident, and  Burmeister’s team has been super consistent, providing him with an unexciting, but ideal, ride so far.  I suspect Burmeister is right where he wants to be at this point.  Adjusting for his start differential, Burmeister will return to the trail about 10 p.m. tonight, just as the weather cools, as most dogs run prefer.

So far, the young musher to watch out for this year is not Dallas Seavey but Big Lake’s Berkowitz. He made the long run from Nikolai to Ophir in 10 hours and change, skipping the checkpoints of McGrath and Takotna. This move alone will narrow the eventual gap between Buser and Berkowitz by four to five  hours once Berkowitz comes off his mandatory layover.  Berkowitz started the race with very conservative runs, and this was his first long push of the race.  It looks like his 16-dog team is ready for more.  Berkowitz was headed for a top-10 finish in last year’s Iditarod, when an unfortunate self-inflicted knife accident knocked him out of the race.  Smart, confident and perhaps a little cocky, watch for Berkowitz to help set the pace over the second half of the Iditarod.

Jeff King is right where he wants to be.  He’s is not leading the race, but the leaders are not out of his sight. He followed his nemesis, Mackey, out of Ophir and will most likely run to the ghost town of Iditarod before taking an extended break.  Reports of fresh snow on the ground will not help his team make the 80-mile run from Ophir to Iditarod in one push; look for him to camp along the way to conserve his dogs’ energy for the finish. 

I picked the wrong Smyth brother for a musher to watch this year.  Last year’s third-place finisher Ramey Smyth is not having a good race, having already dropped his main lead dog and posting relatively slow run times the past two days.  However, his brother Cim Smyth is lurking just behind the lead pack, posting blistering run times, pocketing extra rest, and still running all 16 of his dogs. Cim has only stopped for extended rests at two checkpoints so far:  Rainy Pass and Nikolai.  Smyth has been camping along the trail, under the radar of most of the media and his competition. The Smyth brothers are both known as “closers” in the field of dog mushing – the Mariano Riveras of canine sports.  Keep an eye on Cim as he sets himself up to pick off teams along the Bering Sea coast. 

The run between Nikolai and McGrath is an excellent indicator of the strength and speed of  every team.  Almost all mushers do this run non-stop except for a few brief snack stops, so it gives us a good idea of who is really driving the top teams right now. 

Top 10 In order of Fastest to slowest Nikolai-McGrath (hours:minutes):

1) Cim Smyth  5:10

2) Lance Mackey   5:23

3) Martin Buser  5:26

4) Jake Berkowitz  5:32

5) Jeff King  5:35

6) Dallas Seavey  5:40

7) Nick Petit  5:40

8) Mitch Seavey  5:41

9) Joar Ulsom (R)  5:44

10) Dee Dee Jonrowe 5:46

It should not come as a surprise to see Iditarod rookie Joar Ulsom in this group of mid-race speedsters, and I suspect he has more in his sights than just “rookie of the year” award.  Also, it should be noted that Buser ran approximately 20 miles from Salmon River to Nikolai before running the 48 miles to McGrath, potentially slowing his team speed a little. 

It’s tough to describe just how difficult racing the Iditarod is to casual fans.  The physical and mental challenges mushers face are extreme.  Followers of the race who subscribe to the Iditarod Insider video postings should take note of how easy veteran mushers make this undertaking look.  Watch closely how calm most mushers are when they arrive at a checkpoint, swarmed by media and local fans.  How they maintain composure while checking in and out, balancing a barrage of questions and in the back of their mind thinking of 20 other things.

• Where should I park?

• Which dogs need attention first?

• What changes should I make to my race plan?

• What will the weather be like?

• What is my competition doing?

Sleep deprivation slowly closes in on mushers’ bodies and minds.  A tunnel-like focus is all that most mushers have to work with; anything on the periphery goes unnoticed.  The race is barely one-third over and the challenges that lay ahead will weigh heavily on mushers’ minds as they re-group during their 24-hour layovers,

Normally, there is a lull at this point in the race as most teams are resting during their 24-hour layovers.  This year is different – with Buser charging from the rear and Mackey, King and Lindner pushing to the front race fans will be treated to non-stop competition. 

By tonight, there will be mushers spread out across almost 200 miles of trail from Nikolai to Iditarod and beyond.  The Iditarod party moves across Alaska – let the dance continue.

Zack Steer, a five-time Iditarod finisher, is sitting out this year's race. He owns and operates theSheep Mountain Lodge with Anjanette and two young boys. Follow Zack’s race analysis at Alaska Dispatch.