Jockeying for the lead: Pace becoming key as leaders' strategies begin to take shape

Casey Grove,Beth Bragg
Richie Diehl, from Aniak, Ak., does his chores next to the Ruby Bible Church at the Ruby checkpoint during the 2014 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Friday, March 7, 2014.
Bob Hallinen
An Iditarod musher drives his team down the Yukon River after leaving the Ruby checkpoint and heading towards Galena during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Friday, March 7, 2014.
Bob Hallinen
Cim Smyth, from Big Lake, Ak., arrives at the Ruby checkpoint during the 2014 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Friday, March 7, 2014.
Bob Hallinen

Note: Find the latest race update here.

On a day when Martin Buser reclaimed the Iditarod lead and Aliy Zirkle gained ground on the four-time champion from Big Lake, a couple of veteran mushers contended with dwindling dog teams, a couple of rookies caught their breath and a couple of Seaveys assessed their chances of joining the frontrunners.

Meanwhile, in Maui, the Iditarod’s 2012 rookie of the year — Brent Sass, out of this year’s race with a head injury — provided beach-side analysis.

The challenge for Buser will be keeping his flagging team above 5 mph, Sass said in a phone interview from Hawaii, where he is recuperating and following the race online.

“(Buser) is not going to have the faster speeds that you’re going to see out of Jeff and Sonny who took their 24s in Ruby,” Sass said. “He’s got a pretty good lead. Over three hours on Aliy. Five or six, seven on these other guys. But he’s going to be moving slower.”

That’s because Buser took his 24-hour layover way back in Rohn, on Monday. King and Lindner waited all the way till Thursday, in Ruby, to take theirs.

The race lead on Friday belonged first to Zirkle and then to Buser.

Zirkle was the first to reach Galena — earning $1,000 and 25 pounds of Bristol Bay salmon for her achievement— and took her eight-hour layover there. 

While her race was on pause, Buser, who did his eight hours in Ruby, reclaimed the lead for the first time since he crossed the Farewell Burn into Nikolai on Tuesday. 

He left Galena three hours before Zirkle, but by the end of the day, Zirkle had cut his lead to 80 minutes. Buser left Nulato at 9:34 p.m. Friday, and Zirkle followed at 10:54 p.m.

Among those trailing the leaders is King, who returned to the trail Friday after 24 hours and a gourmet meal in Ruby. The meal was his prize for being the first musher to the Yukon River.

“I’m betting there’s going to be a certain number of teams that can’t keep up the pace that they’ve set for themselves,” King said before leaving Ruby, “and I’m hoping to reel them in.” 

Because King and Lindner waited so long to give their dogs a nice, long rest, Sass thinks history will mean little when it comes to handicapping this year’s race.

In the past 10 Iditarods, every musher who is the first to reach Shaktoolik, 40 miles up the Norton Sound coast, has gone on to win. Sass thinks that streak could end this year. He says to expect lead changes closer to Nome this year.

“Mainly because you had those guys who took their rest so late in the race,” he said.


Eight dogs out

Hugh Neff was kicking along the Yukon River to help his team on the way to Galena, where mushers cross the wide, windswept river where the trail comes into town. The sun was bright on the wide-open expanse of snow. A slight wind made the single-digit temperatures feel colder.

After saying he was glad to be down to a small team of 14 dogs in Nikolai, Neff dropped two dogs there, another in McGrath, one in Ophir and two in Ruby. He was down to eight when he reached Galena.

 “There’s nothing like coming into a checkpoint, and your old boss is yelling at you, 'Where are all your dogs?!’ ” Neff said after he arrived.

Four minutes later, Paul Gebhardt and his team, also down to eight dogs, pulled in next to Neff’s.

“I can’t afford to lose any more,” said Gebhardt, a 

16-time finisher. “I’ll give ’em as much rest as I think they need, and really intense dog care.”

 With only eight left, Gebhardt said he was moving slow. He helped push the sled along the Yukon with a ski pole. But feeding and caring takes less time with fewer dogs and makes it easier to quickly spot any problems, he said.

 “If somebody gets sore, I got to get on it right away. Hopefully nobody gets injured,” Gebhardt said.

The Kasilof musher said he had known others were training to go long stretches without rest, pushing to the front and staying there. “I just wished I was going to be one of them.”

 Now, Gebhardt said he just hoped to finish in the top 20 or 30.

 “A little better paycheck,” he said.


Tortoises and hares

Inside the Galena community hall on Friday, Mitch Seavey and Dallas Seavey sat at a large round table, poring over printouts of other mushers’ run times between checkpoints down the trail.

They are the tortoises to the race’s hares — Buser, King and Lindner — who have made bold, long runs to gain early control of the race.

The father and son have run closely together, often leapfrogging each other. Mitch is the defending champion and Dallas is the 2012 champion, and they maintain that they still have time to make a move, cutting rest time if needed, to overtake those at the front. 

“Well, we’re starting to race a little better now,” Mitch said early in the day, pacing his words the way he paces his team: steady and measured. “I know we’re kind of behind, but I sure like the team. If they keep running fast, we still got a chance of winning.”

The snow could change heading up the Norton Sound coast, Dallas said, and dogs tired from the first two-thirds of the race could slow down.

“But this is what’s fun about it. You train a dog team and take ’em out and see what they can do,” Dallas said. “Sometimes you get lucky and have the trail you train for.”

Then came another phrase the Seaveys and other mushers are fond of using: “There’s a lot of race left.”


Rookies ready to race

A little less than an hour after rookie Nathan Schroeder parked his team in Ruby on Friday morning, Fort Yukon’s Abbie West, the second rookie, arrived.

“I’m having fun, now that I’m not focused on not dying,” West said, standing on Good Time Road after feeding her team. “It’s been really pretty.”

West has had time to take in the sunny, wintry scenery since surviving the Dalzell Gorge and Farewell Burn, which hardened veterans said made them fear for their lives. 

West was bruised and unable to kneel down earlier in the race due to that stretch of trail but said she was using kneepads she found in Sass’s drop bags at a previous checkpoint. Sass withdrew from the Iditarod prior to the race after suffering a concussion in the Yukon Quest and gave West access to his already-shipped bags.

Stopping more than just briefly in Ruby was not part of West’s carefully crafted plan, drawn up with boyfriend and musher Jay Cadzow. But the dogs needed to eat, she said.

 “You guys are hungry, aren’t you?” West said to her team. “Hun-gry. Let’s get some food.”

 After ladling out chow for the dogs and giving them each a beef treat, West fed herself. Sass had packed a lot of peanut butter treats, including many packs of Reese’s, she said. She went for his smoked salmon strips first.

“I can hear my boyfriend (watching) on the (GPS) tracker going, 'What are you doing? Keep going!’ ”

Down the hill in front of West, Schroeder had just finished feeding his dogs, all 16 still in harness, portioning out their food into plastic two-quart gold pans.

“They work pretty good,” Schroeder said. “I went to get food here in Alaska, and I forgot to get dog pans, and the guy says, 'Try those gold pans.’ I like them.”

Schroeder walked up to West.

“Hey, what are we racing for? A beer? Or what?” he asked her.

“I’m not even racing yet,” West said.

West said she was just trying to place high enough to win the money to pay her mortgage before a bank forecloses on her house.

“At least 28th place, is what I figured out,” she said.

Casey Grove reported from Galena and Ruby and Beth Bragg reported from Anchorage. Daily News reporter Kyle Hopkins also contributed to this story.

Anchorage Daily News /