From Kevin Klott --
Jeff King is known as an innovator, a musher who tinkers with gadgets and showcases them on the grand Iditarod stage. This year’s tinkering, however, has nothing to do with sit-down sleds, kennel cabooses or heated handlebars.
King on Thursday unveiled his latest Idita-twist after pushing his team all the way to the Yukon River without taking the mandatory 24-hour layover. He was by no means the first musher to ever accomplish this feat. In fact, Sonny Lindner of Two Rivers also made it to Ruby on Thursday without completing his 24.
Nevertheless, the strategy King and Lindner have employed this year is as notable as it is smart, said four-time champion Lance Mackey.
“People are pushing the envelope a little farther every year,” said Mackey, who is sitting out this year’s race. “The farther you can go until you take (the 24), the better it will be for the end result.”
But are King and Lindner really better off? When their 24s are finished, how long will it take to catch up to Martin Buser and company?
“Whoever wants it is gonna have to earn it,” said 1984 Iditarod winner Dean Osmar.
Osmar remembered when a rookie named Doug Swingley and 1989 Iditarod champion Joe Runyan decided to take their long layover in Ruby. The year was 1992 and strategies like that were unorthodox. Their plan, however, didn’t get them to Nome first. Martin Buser won his first of four victories that year, Swingley (a four-time winner) finished a career-worst ninth, and Runyan scratched.
“They made one hell of a bold move,” Osmar said.
Most recent pushes to the Yukon date back to 1998 when Kotzebue’s John Baker took his 24-hour layover in Ruby. In 2001 Linwood Fiedler 24’d in Anvik, the first Yukon River village on the southern route. Jim Lanier and Bill Cotter each did their 24 in Ruby in 2002. And in 2006, Paul Gebhardt traveled all the way to Galena — 545 miles into the race — to do his 24.
Here’s how each musher’s gamble paid off in each of those years: Baker placed 5th, Fiedler 2nd, Lanier 25th, Cotter 27th and Gebhardt 3rd.
This year, King and Lindner’s tactic to 24 in Ruby certainly makes sense, Mackey said, considering the hard, fast trail they faced since saying goodbye and good riddance to the nightmarish Farewell Burn.
Mackey predicts the two will split the 135-mile run from Ruby to Kaltag into two runs, take their mandatory eight-hour rest along the Yukon River in Kaltag, and then bolt for Unalakleet.
“At this point in the game, the more rest you have the better you’ll be,” he said. “Normally people after this point are cutting rest.”
A member of the Iditarod Inside camera crew asked King just before Thursday morning if he had ever taken his 24 this late in the race. The 58-year-old Denali Park musher looked halfway asleep; he had just pulled into Ruby after completing a 10-hour, 70-mile run from Cripple.
“I think I did once. At least I stayed here long enough I had to clean the grocery store out of some frozen meat,” King said. “But that might have just been for an eight (hour layover). I don’t think I have ever 24’d here."
According to Anchorage Daily News archives, King once did an Anvik 24 in 2003. But that year, the race started in Fairbanks, nearly 700 miles upriver on the Yukon.
King said a 24-hour layover in Ruby was his plan from the start.
"This was my first choice because of the weather pattern that Alaska’s been having,” he told Iditarod Insider. “And the Iron Dog having come through so fast, I was counting on it being good trail and it really was.
“I wanted to give it a try, to not have the dogs take their 24 until they were good and tired. And quite frankly they weren’t even remotely tired in Takotna and McGrath.”
At this point, if Mackey had to put money down on a winner, he would go with either King or Lindner. But he said it’s still too early to count out any of the big dogs.
“I think they’re both on the right track,” Mackey said. “Martin’s got this thing dialed in too. Kelly Maixner is the dark horse this year. He’s running a hell of a race. And if you look at the Seavey boys, who play it conservatively and come on strong at the end, no doubt in my mind they’ll do that again.”
The Yukon River is known for its whiteouts and poor trail conditions. After that stretch mushers face the Bering Sea coast, which can be brutal.