Alaska News

After dog mashup in Nenana, Iditarod's elite begin to strut their stuff

NENANA -- How does one pack 70 sled-dog teams along the waterfront in Nenana? Not in an organized fashion, that's for sure. There was considerable confusion about where and how to park a pileup of 16-dog strings on Monday. However, everyone seemed in good spirits after a relatively easy run from Fairbanks.

Some teams elected to run straight through the Nenana checkpoint, pausing long enough to pick up straw and some food for the trail before continuing toward checkpoint No. 2 at Manley Hot Springs. The advertised distance of 150 miles between Fairbanks and Manley is actually closer to 140. Ten miles is an hour of run time for most teams.

My pick for victory, Martin Buser, had a quick run time into Manley and it appears that he is running a more conventional strategy in this years' race. Martin looks to be dividing the Fairbanks-Manley segment into a couple of runs in an effort to keep his speed. Paul Gebhardt and Lance Mackey elected to rest in Nenana for about the same length of time as their run. Gebhardt elected for another break before Manley. His initial runs have been very fast; maybe his dogs are happy to finally see snow.

This early rest strategy plays well for those who want to keep speed in their team. It remains to be seen if speed can trump slow runs accompanied by less rest.

Only a handful of teams went through Nenana without stopping.

Although the Iditarod website showed many teams continuing without a break, that information was not accurate. Checkers were on the south end of town at the community center, where there was little room to rest teams. Most drivers moved several hundred yards farther on, where there was open room to park.

Some teams left the checkpoint at a trot, others left wide open with the driver standing on the drag.

Sleds of choice in the 2015 Iditarod are trailer sleds, which leave the musher few options other than hanging on, standing on the brake and screaming; "Whoa!!" It was pretty good entertainment.

A team I didn't get to see was rookie Thomas Waerner's. Waerner is an experienced racer from Norway teamed with two-time champion Robert Sorlie's kennel and driving what amounts to a Norwegian all-star team of dogs. He will be someone to watch. Early on, it appears to be a team with speed combined with a driver not afraid to push a little. That is a fine line that experienced drivers can sometimes pull off -- but also one that can lead to trouble.

Most of the leading teams arrived in Manley Tuesday with four or five hours of rest behind them.

Buser continues to show excellent speed. He took about four hours of rest en route to the checkpoint and still was second to arrive. Lance Mackey is moving well. He elected to run his team of young dogs 90 miles from Nenana to Manley without a break after a good rest in Nenana.

Run-rest schedules will begin to clarify over the next 24 hours. Race watchers should look at the analytics graph on the Iditarod GPS trackers. This is a good tool that shows when and where any team has rested.

Notice the sharp ups and downs in the graph. These are what could be called "stutter steps" -- breaks where musher stops to replace a bootie or two, untangle a line, or snack the dogs. Too many stutter steps add up to a lot of lost time and disrupt a team's pace.

The analytics page can also show if team speed is dropping off. A couple of the leaders into Manley dropped speed noticeably over their last half hour into the checkpoint.

Hugh Neff and Nicolas Petit slowed, but both of those teams train for longer runs and are less dependent on speed than stamina.

The easy part of Iditarod 43 is over. The initial luster is off. Dog care now becomes paramount. With trail conditions and temperature close to ideal for dogs, small details of foot care and wrist maintenance are of utmost importance.

Teams arrived here with very few booties missing. That speaks of no overflow patches, which pulls off booties, and a decent trail that doesn't fill them with snow. As go the feet; so goes the dog.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and an Iditarod veteran. His wife, Zoya DeNure, is one of the 78 mushers in this year's Iditarod.

John Schandelmeier

Outdoor opinion columnist John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.