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Iron Dog racers play hopscotch in Alaska's Yukon River valley

Craig Medred
Tim Jauhola of Fairbanks applies medical foam tape to his face before the start of the Iron Dog. The tape keeps his face from getting frostbitten during the 2,000 mile race, where the leaders average a speed around 90mph. Feb 17, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Chad Dow and his girlfriend Shawna Melansan before the start of the Iron Dog. Dow, a rookie from Fairfield, Maine, was looking forward to whatever comes his way during the 2,000 mile race. Feb 17, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Former Alaska Governor and Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin waiting to wish good luck to her husband, former Iron Dog champion Todd Palin, before the start of the race in Big Lake. Feb 17, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Blair Sheldon, 4 years old, plays on the seat of his dad Norman's snowmachine before the start of the Iron Dog race. Feb 17, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Iron Dog rookies George Lambert and Norman Sheldon fist bump before they begin their 2,000 mile race. Feb 17, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Ryan Johnson and Andy Lachinski head out of the shoot during the start of the 2013 Iron Dog snowmobile race. Feb 17, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Iron Dog 2013 team #35, Hill and Juhlin, race across Big Lake shortly after leaving the start line. Feb 17, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Iron Dog race fans cheer on competitors as they take off from Big Lake. Feb 17, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Emily and Clint Earns and friends cheer on Iron Dog competitors from outside their rented cabin on Big Lake. Feb 17, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Tanana brothers Aaron Marks and Arnold Marks Jr. race through the trees just outside of the Big Lake start during day one of the Iron Dog. Feb 17, 2013
Loren Holmes photo

As the cold as old as Alaska settled into the Yukon River valley on Monday night, the annual Iron Dog game of "who's on first'' was underway once again. Readers of a certain age will recognize "who's on first'' as an old routine performed by the late comedians Stan Abbott and Costello. Those of a younger age can review history thanks to the joys of technology.

And for those who don't want to go to the trouble, suffice to say this is the point in the Iron Dog when things get truly confusing because of the 30 hours of layover rest racers must take between Big Lake and Nome. Most of the racers have already done 8 hours in McGrath, which leaves 22 to be served in various forms -- eight on the river, 14 on the Bering Sea coast, or some other mix.

Even Iron Dog officials seemed confused by that on Monday. Here is how the Iron Dog Facebook page explained things to fans:

"Confused about who's in the lead? It's all about COURSE TIME. It's challenging to track unless you’re familiar with the rules. So until all the teams start leveling out on their layovers, you have to do the math yourself to see who has the shortest course time. The clock runs continuously until they declare a layover. There are 30 hours of layovers on the way north and 20 hours on their way back to Fairbanks."  

Well that simplified things, didn't it?

Akelstad, Johnson pace field 

The official race standings had Tyler Akelstad from Palmer and Tyson Johnson from Eagle River in the lead. Johnson, 33, has been racing Iron Dog for more than a decade. Akelstad, 27, has been at it almost that long. They are no strangers to the front, but they have never won. In six of nine previous races, Aklestad failed to finish. Johnson has done better in terms of finishing, but had to sit out some years with snowmobile-race related injuries. Both have a reputation for driving hard, which in the world of Iron Dog racing can be as much a curse as a blessing.

Monday night, the pair was settled down in Kaltag, a windswept village in the crook of the Yukon where it goes from running west to bending south. They had declared an 8-hour layover and were comfortably resting. The temperature outside was 20 degrees below zero. And the official standings appeared to have them properly placed based on their average speed 47.7 mph over the first 600 to 700 miles of the course. 

That is a speed calculated on the odometer measured between the checkpoints, which is different from that measured on the GPS (global positioning system) trackers on the racers' sleds. The GPS, which sends a signal ever few minutes and can miss some of the kinks in the trail, has Kaltag at 577.8 miles from the Big Lake start line. Official race checkpoint distances put Kaltag at more than 700 miles from the start. 

Whatever the case, the math on average speed still works out the same for all teams, and it had Akelstad and Johnson and their Ski-Doos the fastest in the bunch. Behind them, the rest of the teams in the official top three seemed to make sense. In second were Team Arctic Cat riders Brian Dick and Eric Quam. Quam, 42, won the race in 2008 paired with Anchorage's Marc McKenna, but this year is racing with 34-year-old Dick, an engineer for Arctic Cat back in Thief River Falls, Minn., the brand's base. The Quam-Dick duo was averaging 46.7 mph when they stopped in Kaltag for an eight along with Aklestad and Johnson.

Also in Kaltag, and officially listed as third, were young Ski-Doo jockeys Aaron Bartel, 22, from Anchorage and Brad George, 19, from Wasilla. They were averaging 45.4 mph.

And then things got a little weird, because the next fastest team -- that of 41-year-old Chris Olds from Eagle River, a 2010 and 2011 champ, and new partner Mike Morgan from Anchorage -- were 14th in the standings despite an average speed of 44.47 mph. Olds and Morgan were the early race leaders, but stopped in Ruby to take one of those confusing layovers when other teams sped ahead on the trail.

What their average speed to Ruby means is hard to say, but most teams Monday were upping their averages for the race as they sped up the wide, open Yukon where the trail between villages is well traveled and well marked. By the time you read this, who knows where the 14th team will be. They could have their Polaris Switchbacks in the lead, or maybe just ahead of the officially fourth-placed team of defending champs in McKenna and Dusty VanMeter from Kasilof.

Defending Iron Dog champs, McKenna and VanMeter averaged 44 mph to Galena -- about halfway between Ruby and Kaltag -- where they parked for a layover. 

Confused yet?

Seven top teams 

Well, to simplify this just a bit, this much is obvious two days into the world's longest, toughest snowmobile race: The field of 39 teams is narrowing to a handful of top competitors. Only seven teams are averaging more than 40 mph: Those already mentioned, along with the team of Scott Davis from Soldotna and Todd Palin from Wasilla, and the duo of Ryan Sottosanti, 36, and Andrew Zwink, 23, both from Anchorage. Davis, 53, and Palin, 48, are the last graybeards left in contention, and they've still got a shot.

The 2013 Iron Dog champions are almost certain to come from among these front seven teams, but a lot more should be known when the race reaches Nome today. 

One of the teams considered a top contender this year, the 2010 championship duo Todd Minnick and Nick Olstad of Wasilla, scratched on the way to Ophir because of mechanical issues.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com