Buser snatches early Iditarod lead

Once again, four-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champ Martin Buser is starting with a seemingly go-for-broke goal to win it all or pay the price.

He was the first musher into Nenana, the first checkpoint, on Monday and quickly thereafter the first musher out to grab the immediate lead in the 1,000-mile race to Nome.

Before leaving Fairbanks, the location for this year's Iditarod restart, the 57-year-old musher from Big Lake insisted "I'm not going to jump out front. I want to be first at the end, not the first at Tanana."

Not long after he was off down the Tanana River into Alaska's newly returned winter. After weekend rain in Anchorage and a Saturday thaw in Fairbanks, temperatures were pushing back toward their icy norm.

The National Weather Service was reporting the thermometer could fall to near 30 below Monday night as Buser and others speed down the frozen Tanana toward the community of the same name at the confluence with the mighty Yukon River

Whether Buser really meant what he said at the start or was simply engaging in a bit of Iditarod gamesmanship, only he knows. What history shows, however, is that Buser likes to run from the front.

In 2002, he won the Iditarod in a record time of 8 days, 22 hours, 46 minutes that stood for nine years and remains the third-fastest winning time in Iditarod history. He claimed victory in that race by jumping out front early.

He was behind the second team over the Alaska Range into the remote checkpoint of Rohn in 2002, secured the race lead by the time the race broke out into the Interior at McGrath and never looked back.

He's never really abandoned the 2002 race strategy. Last year, he led the Iditarod into Rohn by an hour and 10 minutes over his nearest competitor, Nicolas Petit from Girdwood. Buser had only extended that lead by the time he took the race's one mandatory rest in the Athabascan village of Nikolai.

Much of the field passed him there as other top mushers decided to make their 24-hour pit stop farther down the trail, but Buser had caught back on by the time the race hit the Yukon River and led the Iditarod into the riverside communities of Galena and Nulato.

By then, though, it was clear he'd allowed his team to go out just a little too fast. His dogs were starting to lose a little of their speed. By Kaltag, where the race moved off the river and headed for the Bering Sea coast, Buser was second to three-time Iditarod runner-up Aliy Zirkle from Two Rivers with Petit third.

By Unalakleet on the Bering Sea coast, Zirkle had a comfortable lead; four-time champ Jeff King from Denali Park had eased into second; Buser had slipped to third; and Petit was gone.

After his dogs made their own unplanned stop on the portage between the Yukon and the Bering Sea, Petit decided to call it quits.

Buser, too, was paying the price for going out just a little too fast. More teams passed him along the coast, but he hung on to finish sixth.

On Monday, he said last year's decision to run almost nonstop from the 2014 Willow restart for almost 300 miles Nikolai was "based on physiological findings" regarding his dogs. The run proved the dogs can go long distances petty much nonstop without tiring much, but whether a musher can win with such a jump-to-the-front strategy remains to be seen.

The conditions mushers faced last year did not make for the ideal test. From the top of Rainy Pass for almost 100 miles to Nikolai, the Iditarod Trail was nearly snowless. Mushers took a beating and dogs worked harder to drag sleds over bare ground.

The terrain north of the Alaska Range along the historic Iditarod Trail is snowless again this year, which forced the race restart north to Fairbanks. The shift removed the dog-tiring mountains as an obstacle, and put the race on generally flat river ice or snow-covered river ice over which a dog sled slides easily, making for less work for the team in front.

All of those things play to the advantage of someone like Buser, who is known for putting together fast dog teams. And when you're 57 years old and physically beat up, it doesn't hurt to be running on a musher-friendlier trail either.

It is possible Buser meant what he said in Fairbanks about not wanting to jump out front, but he had jumped out front. And it didn't look like many other mushers were willing to let him go.

Norwegian rookie Thomas Waerner was hot on his tail, and two-time runner-up DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow was out of Nenana less than an hour after Buser with Zirkle only minutes behind her.

Defending champ Dallas Seavey from Willow and a pack of other favorites were out of Nenana on the Buser chase within two to three hours.

No rookie has won the Iditarod since Emmitt Peters in 1975. An Athasbascan from the Yukon River community of Ruby, an Iditarod checkpoint this year, Peters came into the '75 event with a vast knowledge of how to run sled dogs and revolutionized the Iditarod.

His winning time of 14 days, 14 hours, 42 minutes turned what had been a 20-day event into a two-week race. Five-time champ Iditarod champ Rick Swenson from Two Rivers has called Peters' victory one of the greatest in Iditarod history. The time Peters set stood for five years.

The 42-year-old Waerner shares some similarities with Peters in that he is something of a RINO -- rookie in name only. He is one of the top mushers in Europe, won the Finnmarksløpet -- "The Norwegian Iditarod'' -- in 2013, and just happens to be in a partnership with two-time Iditarod champ Robert Sørlie.

Sorlie won the first of his championships in 2003 when the Iditarod began in Fairbanks for the first time in its history. Sorlie was in Fairbanks to help Waerner on Monday when the race started only its second Interior run. There should be little doubt Sorlie offered his teammate advice on how to tackle the flatter Interior course.

Craig Medred

Craig Medred is a former writer for the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch and Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2015.