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Five-hour Iditarod lead vanishes along soupy snow-trail to Kaltag, Alaska

Zack Steer
A musher arrives in Kaltag at sunset. March 12, 2011
Stephen Nowers photo
A dog team arrives in the Yukon river village of Kaltag. March 12, 2011
Stephen Nowers photo
A church in Kaltag, a village of 200 on the Yukon River. March 12, 2011
Stephen Nowers photo
City offices in Kaltag. March 12, 2011
Stephen Nowers photo
A dog team arrives in Kaltag, the last checkpoint on the Yukon River. March 12, 2011
Stephen Nowers photo
A snow covered fishing boat in the Yukon river community of Kaltag. March 12, 2011
Stephen Nowers photo
DeeDee Jonrowe feeds her dogs in Kaltag. March 12, 2011
Stephen Nowers photo
The Kaltag tribal office. March 12, 2011
Stephen Nowers photo
A satellite dish in the Yukon river village of Kaltag. March 12, 2011
Stephen Nowers photo

A pack of hungry mushers headed up the frozen Yukon River Saturday morning, chasing down Iditarod Sled Dog Race leader Martin Buser. The top Iditarod racers will reach Kaltag later today, with a third of the trail remaining before finishing in Nome, and Buser’s race strategy is unraveling. Other competitors smell blood.  

Buser’s early rabbit run to Rohn and mid-race push to Anvik seem to finally be catching up to his team speed. Yesterday, Buser’s race schedule forced him to make a mid-day 12-hour run of 80 miles from Grayling to Eagle Island practically non-stop. Consider that a turning point for the worse in his race.

Buser's race may be toast 

Dog teams do not get faster as the race goes on, a truth all veteran mushers know.  Yes, you can whistle them up for a brief burst of speed, but for the most part they settle in at a slow, steady trot over the final third of the race.  The only way to get from point A to point B faster than your competition is to cut rest.  Buser cut his rest in the beginning of the race and will not be able to match the rest cuts the chase pack will inevitably make along the coast.

Most likely, his race is toast.

Excluding the rapidly slowing Buser, the top-10 teams are all within four hours of each other, an incredibly tight pack of teams that all have a chance to win. Jeff King and Jessie Royer are the only mushers in the pack to have not completed their eight-hour layovers on the Yukon River, which will slow them by at least three hours today. Even that will not be enough to take them out of consideration.  Eight hours rest this late in the race could give their dogs a shot of extra energy they need to catch the others along the Bering Sea coast.

Run times from Grayling to Eagle Island are an excellent indicator of team strength at this point in the race. Almost all of the teams do this run non-stop, with only a few stops for wet feeds, snacks and booty checks.  Here are the top-10 run times from Grayling to Eagle Island, I’ve included dog numbers out of Eagle Island for insight into team depth remaining:

  • Dallas Seavey, 7:04, 10 dogs
  • Ray Redington, Jr., 7:05, 12 dogs
  • Jake Berkowitz, 7:08, 15 dogs
  • Mitch Seavey, 7:13, 12 dogs
  • Sonny Lindner, 7:22, 12 dogs
  • Jeff King, 7:23, 15 dogs
  • Jessie Royer, 7:27, 12 dogs
  • Aaron Burmeister, 7:43, 14 dogs
  • Ken Anderson, 7:45, 12 dogs
  • Aliy Zirkle, 7:48, 13 dogs

Not even close: Martin Buser, 9:03, 11 dogs.

A few years ago, the raw checkpoint times might have led one to suspect that Buser camped along the trail and rested his team, perhaps explaining the almost two-hour difference in his time compared to others. With modern GPS data available from Iditarod Insider, one can clearly see that Buser did not stop and that his run was almost completely non-stop. His slow run time is for real.

Teams that rested in Grayling (Zirkle, Mitch Seavey, Burmeister and Berkowitz) had a slight advantage compared to those that rested 18 miles earlier in Anvik (Buser, Ulsom, and Nicolas Petit). The Anvik crew has to run almost 2 and a half hours longer to get to Eagle Island without stopping. A seven-hour run at this point in the race is well within the capabilities of most teams. But a run of more than 10 hours risks pushing dogs beyond the point that they can recover their speed in time for the next run.

End-game trends

In the final 300 miles of the race, it is important to look at trends: Who is slowing down? Who is staying the same speed? Who is cutting rest?  

It is obvious that Buser’s team is slowing down, enough so that I would expect the others pass him for good by Unalakleet. Mitch Seavey and Berkowitz appear to have the strongest teams at the front of the race, and both have enough dogs left to give them options along the coast to drop healthy, albeit slower, dogs. Trends can change over the final 300 miles, but usually it is for the worse as weaker teams begin to fall off the lead pace.

Berkowitz finished the 2009 Iditarod in Nome with all 16 dogs in harness, a rare accomplishment noteworthy because of the extra time and effort required to care for and feed such a long team, so late into the race. That year, he was running a yearling team on a mid-pack race schedule. If Berkowitz is smart, his goal will be to get to Nome this year as fast as he can, not with as many dogs as possible.

Last year, Berkowitz was a strong-running sixth in Unalakleet when a single-blade knife he was using to cut apart frozen-fish snacks for his dogs slipped and plunged deep into the flesh of his left palm. His severed artery required medical attention, and Berkowitz was forced to scratch. It appears he’s behind another strong crew.

“I’ve never driven a dog team that’s this competitive and this eager to go at the same time,” Berkowitz told Emily Schwing of KUAC radio on Friday.

More dogs do not equal a faster team at the finish.  In fact, the opposite is true. Mushers have a saying that you are only as fast as your slowest dog. Look for Berkowitz and others with 12+ dogs to start dropping animals along the coast, even if they are perfectly healthy and still pulling.  Besides, who wants to put booties on the 64 feet of 16 dogs during the eighth day of the Iditarod?

Savvy veterans show patience

Mitch Seavey, the 2004 champion, showed his experience when he allowed Zirkle to leave Eagle Island 30 minutes ahead of him. He could have easily followed her out on the trail, but instead gave her a half hour lead. Why? It’s simple. Seavey can see that his run time to Eagle Island was a half hour faster than Zirkle’s. He figures that if speeds remain the same, he will make the next 60-mile run to Kaltag 30 minutes faster, too. Why let Zirkle draft off of him when he can spot her a lead and let his dogs follow her scent, only to demoralize Zirkle as he passes her in the final miles into Kaltag? This is the kind of veteran strategy that goes on during every Iditarod, when patience truly is a virtue. 

Any team within four hours of the leader when they reach the coastal checkpoint of Unalakleet on Sunday has a chance to win this race. Veteran mushers know that anything can, and often does happen at the end of the race. 

So-called "invincible" teams falter on the open sea ice. Sleep-deprived mushers make critical strategic mistakes. Surging teams often come from behind to eclipse race leaders. Early Friday, the race was Buser’s to lose. 

Saturday, it's anybody’s to win.

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