Leading Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race mushers will leapfrog each other today along Alaska's Yukon River, as they move upriver to the Athabascan village of Kaltag. Long-time musher Martin Buser's early gamble seems to be working, placing him squarely in the position of race leader. But not a leader without chinks in his armor.
Buser's run-time is more than three hours faster than John Baker's 2011 record-setting Iditarod finish. The chase pack of Two Rivers' Aliy Zirkle, Aaron Burmeister of Nome, Mitch Seavey of Sterling, hard-charging Nick Petit of Girdwood, and rookie Joar Ulsom of Norway are three to five hours behind Buser -- and roughly equal to the 2011 record race pace.
Buser's chasers appear to be slowly making up ground, with most teams making the run from Iditarod to Shageluk 30 to 45 minutes faster than he did in the dark of night. If that continues, they could close the gap by the time teams reach the Bering Sea coast. Buser did make a hard push to Anvik, winning the Millennium Hotel "first to the Yukon" award, including dinner and $3,500. This may explain some of his drop in team speed. Buser's team was also slowed by drinking bad river water in Iditarod, which slowed some dogs. An eight-hour rest in Anvik should allow plenty of time to clear up any stomach sickness the dogs may have picked up.
All teams take an eight-hour rest at any one of the five Yukon River checkpoints. Most will take this break right away in Anvik, resting their teams after the long run from Iditarod. In years with slow trail, mushers tend to wait until Eagle Island or even Kaltag to rest their teams in an effort to prepare the dogs for the long 85-mile run to the coastal village of Unalakleet. In truth, the location of the Yukon break probably does not matter that much for the dogs – it is more of a break for the mushers to get their last solid sleep and rest before the final mandatory rest in White Mountain. Strategically, I would not place much importance on this decision.
Better trail than anticipated
The trail from Iditarod to Shageluk turned out to be better than advertised, with recent rains and snow machine traffic helping to consolidate the loose snow into a hard-packed base. Trail reports upriver indicate mushers can expect similar trail conditions ahead.
Rain-soaked snow does not form drifts in windy conditions because it's too heavy to move. Predicted winds should have little effect on teams travelling upriver. If temperatures drop below freezing, the surface layer tends to skim over with ice, which greatly reduces the work sled dogs and mushers need to put in to move down the trail. Mushers must be grinning as they finally have a good trail.
Warm conditions with a hard and fast trail mimic trail conditions that Buser trains in at his home area near Big Lake. Buser's strategic gamble early in the race is being helped by the unpredictable weather.
Are the stars are starting to align in his favor? At this point, Buser does not need to be faster than other teams. He only needs to match their running speed and take a similar amount of rest. Buser arrived in Anvik wearing a lightweight pair of winter shoes, indicating that he is working as hard as his dogs to get down the trail. All of the teams will adjust their run-rest schedules to minimize late afternoon runs in the heat of the day. Better to wait until early evening when the temperatures drop, the trail hardens up and the dogs perk up.
How to catch Buser
There are only two ways to catch a team: Run faster or rest less. The current chase pack seems content to continue to take rest equal to Buser's and hope to catch him by making up small increments of time on each run. There are nine checkpoints left until the finish, and if mushers can run 30 minutes faster on each run, the gap will disappear.
The first question mushers ask when they arrive at a checkpoint will inevitably be "What was Buser's in time?" This way they can compare their run time to his. If they run faster, they'll have the luxury of matching his checkpoint rest. If they are equal or slower than Buser, their only choice will be to cut rest.
Schedule advantage to Zirkle
Buser left Anvik just after 10 a.m. Friday during the hottest time of day. Two Rivers musher Aliy Zirkle, the runner-up last year, will be resting at Grayling all afternoon, and should be able to get back on the trail tonight at a much cooler time of the day. If temps drop enough to re-freeze the trail, Zirkle will have a substantial advantage over Buser in both trail and weather conditions today.
Zirkle has been running a different schedule than Buser, camping more often along the trail to break her runs up into shorter run distances. This proved to be a successful strategy for Zirkle last year. Burmeister and Berkowitz seem to be following a similar race plan that calls for them to take their mandatory eight-hour Yukon River rest farther upriver.
It is interesting to see relative newcomers Nick Petit and Joar Ulsom pushing so close to the front of the pack. Petit is not a name most fans are familiar with, but this 2011 rookie of the year has been steadily improving in recent mid-distance races. Can they maintain the pace? Both mushers are still running 14 dogs, and look to be putting a solid challenge forward to the veteran lead pack. They are not making typical novice mistakes, and are posting some of the fastest run times in the middle third of the race.
Petit was in the top-10 after his early run from Nikolai to McGrath, and just posted the fastest run time among the first 10 teams from Iditarod to Shageluk -- 7:28, which was almost an hour faster than Buser's time of 8:19.
Buser has been in this position before; his dogs have not.
His young crew of canine athletes is the biggest question mark left. Most of Buser's dogs have seen the way to Nome, but not on a fast-paced team. Whether they have the stamina to continue for four more days at this pace remains to be seen. Buser's early doubters (myself included) must admit that his strategic experiment has a very good chance of working. There are still factors out of his control that could complicate his race. Dogs can still get sick, coastal storms can still move in and mushers are known to occasionally sleep in.
Baby-boomer Buser's 55-year-young body is mushing in uncharted territory, pushing the pace and challenging all others to catch him if they can.