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Iditarod 2011: Convergence in Rohn

Joe Runyan

Instantaneous checkpoint times and GPS tracking make me feel silly reporting events. Of course, it’s self-evident -- we can all see that the lead pack has slid off the north side of the Alaska Range into the Rohn River checkpoint.

Therefore, a few observations:

Our lead mushers Bob Bundtzen, Paul Gebhardt, Lance Mackey, Ray Redington, Martin Buser, Hugh Neff, Sebastian Schnuelle, and Hans Gatt comprise a remarkable group, having converged into Rohn from a number of strategic plays.

All are familiar front-runners, except our leader Bob Bundzten. Is he the real deal? Although he has never seen the top 20 in his past races, he is a seasoned musher. He runs every other year, trading the dog team with co-owner Zack Steer. Dedicated fans recall that Steer almost stole an Iditarod and placed a scintillating third place in 2007 with many of the dogs in this year’s team. Additionally, Iditarod champ Dean Osmar told me that this team has also been complemented by dogs from the Berkowitz kennel. In summary, Bob is holding the handlebars between an all-star team capable of a finish in the top 10. If he stays to the front, we will learn a great deal more about this team.

Now, about the strategy plays. Gebhardt, Hugh Neff, Sebastian Schnuelle, Hans Gatt, and Ray Redington are, in general, slower than this year’s speedster Lance Mackey (arguably the fastest on the trail at the moment) and Martin Buser, who has always trained for top speed. The speed guys necessarily go faster but they also rest more. The methodical mushers go slower, but it’s easier on the dogs, and they can take less rest. Regardless of style, all of these mushers have taken rests at different points -- sometimes in a checkpoint, but often at a favorite camping spot alongside the trail. End result: incredibly, lead mushers get to Rohn at about the same time.

Interestingly, the four-time champ Lance Mackey is normally not concerned about team speed, or even the prospect of being the leader of the race on the second day. He likes to emerge further down the trail, and yet we find him now at the front of the pack leading the race out of Rohn River.

How did this happen? It appears that Lance made a brilliant strategy move. He left Skwentna on Sunday and found himself at the front of the pack to Finger Lake. We would normally assume that he would rest with the rest of the pack near Finnebear Lake, halfway between the Finger and Rainy Pass checkpoints. Instead, he must have noticed that he was at the front on excellent trail, and smoking. He made it in one giant run of seven hours from Skwentna to Rainy Pass, essentially skipping a rest stop. Realizing his good fortune, he rested the dogs for a luxurious six hours in Rainy Pass -- enough time for several big meals and a nap for himself in a warm cabin at the remote hunting lodge.

While others are more or less obligated by strategy to stop for rest at Rohn, Lance has now fudged his schedule so that he can bomb through Rohn and continue in the front of the race on great trail to a destination (only presently known to Lance) somewhere halfway to Nikolai. It was a great move that gained him some leverage. It was risky, but calculated, and fits into his personality profile -- unpredictable.

Martin Buser is in his element. Good trail, moderate weather -- this is when his team is known to thrive. They can be very explosive, fast, and Buser likes it. Usually, as a creature of habit, he will leave Rohn River and rest at a favorite cabin stop as the trail intersects the Salmon River, several hours short of Nikolai. After resting, he will dial in the controls for one long run to McGrath, staying only minutes in Nikolai to pick up more dog food.

As a consideration, mushers consider the 20-mile section just out of Rohn River as dicey. The trail skirts rocks, narrowly misses trees, turns abruptly downhill on glaciers, and can be a heart thumper, especially in the dark. However, trail reports of deep snow make me think the Buffalo tunnels and glaciers will be sleepers this year.

Joe Runyan, champion of the 1985 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and 1989 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, worked with former Iditarod champion Jeff King on his book, "Cold Hands, Warm Heart" as well as with defending Iditarod champion Lance Mackey on his autobiography, "The Lance Mackey Story", and will be providing commentary and analysis of Iditarod 39 for Alaska Dispatch.