Buser's drive for five Iditarod titles still on track

Beth Bragg

Martin Buser enjoyed a gourmet meal, Aliy Zirkle picked up a new pair of moose-skin mittens and Lance Mackey made a wait-until-next-year speech Friday in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

There was some racing too.

Buser’s drive for five remained on track, and on record pace. 

The four-time champion from Big Lake started the day with a feast — the five-course meal that awaits the first musher to reach Anvik. After his 3 a.m. meal, he took his mandatory eight-hour layover while Zirkle and others leapfrogged past him, choosing to delay their eight-hour breaks.

Hours later, Buser and his team of 13 dogs was back in the lead, They reached Eagle Island at 9:55 p.m.

Behind him was a platoon of pursuers bookended by Zirkle, last year’s runner-up, and Jake Berkowitz, who has impressed with his speed and power as he continues to run a full team of 16 dogs.

After his long break in Anvik, Buser arrived in Grayling shortly after noon and left swiftly, at 12:52 p.m. The departure time put him nearly two hours — 1 hour, 51 minutes — ahead of John Baker’s pace in his record-setting 2011 win.

It also put him five hours ahead of Zirkle, who left Grayling at 5:54 p.m, and nearly eight hours ahead of Berkowitz, who left at 7:39 p.m.

Between them was a mix of old and new — Norwegian rookie Joar Leifseth Ulsom (6:25 p.m. departure), 2011 rookie of the year Nicolas Petit of Girdwood (6:39 p.m.), tough and steady Jessie Royer of Montana (6:55 p.m.), 2004 champion Mitch Seavey of Seward (6:58 p.m.), four-time champion Jeff King of Denali Park (also at 6:58 p.m.) and last year’s fourth-place finisher, Aaron Burmeister of Nome (7:06 p.m.).

Race analyst Sebastian Schnuelle said he likes Berkowitz’s chances. 

Berkowitz has quietly been banking rest, allowing his dogs to take longer breaks than necessary at some checkpoints. That could bode well for Berkowitz's chances later down the trail.

"Of any team in the race, that's the team I would want to have right now," Schnuelle said.

Berkowitz clocked the fastest time on the 18-mile run from Anvik to Grayling, doing it in 2 hours, 15 minutes. Buser had the second fastest time at 2:25, and all of the frontrunners did it in 2:37 or faster.

Although Buser stopped in Anvik for his eight-hour layover and Seavey took his in Shageluk, the checkpoint before Anvik, the rest of the chase pack waited until Grayling to take the mandatory break on the Yukon.

Zirkle was the first to reach Grayling, which made her both richer and warmer. The Grayling tribal council rewarded her with $250 and a pair of moose-skin mittens made by Sue Nicholi.

Grayling is one of a handful checkpoints where prizes await the first musher who arrives. So far Buser, Zirkle and Mackey have picked up goodies. Zirkle got money and mittens in Grayling, Buser got the gourmet meal and $3,500 in Anvik, and Mackey collected $3,000 in placer gold nuggets in Iditarod.

Mackey has since fallen out of contention. But wait until next year, the four-time champ said.

"We might not even get in the top 10 this year, but next year they will be the team to beat," he said. "They've been eating everything I'm giving them. Their speed's pretty consistent."

Only one dog, Rev, remains from his dynasty teams, Mackey said. But the junior varsity team has learned at least one new trick -- the dogs are quiet when leaving checkpoints, the better to slip away when other mushers aren't looking.

"Hard to sneak out of a checkpoint when they're screaming and waking everybody up," Mackey said.


Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335. Reporter Kyle Hopkins contributed to this report.