Expect Fairbanks start to guarantee a speedy Iditarod

Winter returned to Southcentral Alaska too late for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which will follow its ceremonial Anchorage start with a long drive north to Fairbanks, where the real 1,000-mile race to Nome begins Monday.

The Fairbanks start appears destined to ensure speed in a race that might well have been slowed by the foot or so of snow forecast to fall over the weekend across the Susitna Valley and north into the Alaska Range and the upper reaches of the Kuskokwim River.

Bare ground in the latter area is what forced the Iditarod start north and changed -- many believe -- the way this year's race will be run. A Fairbanks-to-Nome race is not wholly new for the Iditarod, but it has taken place only once, more than a decade ago.

Nobody worried about Sorlie

The year was 2003, and Norwegian Robert Sorlie became the first foreigner to win the Iditarod. Sorlie entered that race something of a known quantity. He'd finished an impressive ninth the year before to win rookie-of-the-year honors.

But he was not considered a favorite in a competition that featured five-time Iditarod champ Rick Swenson from Two Rivers, four-time champ Martin Buser from Big Lake, and then-three-time champ Jeff King from Denali Park.

With most attention fixed on that trio, nobody paid much mind to Sorlie.

He played his underdog status to perfection on a course that lacks the tough climb over the Alaska Range and the rough trail found there. Sorlie followed race leaders Buser and King for 350 miles into the Ruby checkpoint on the Yukon River and then made a pivotal move very early in the race.

When Buser stopped at Galena, the next checkpoint, to rest, Sorlie kept going. He opened a gap on King by cutting rest in checkpoints along the Yukon. Where King stopped to give his team six to six-and-a-half-hour breaks, Sorlie returned to the trail after only four or five hours' rest.

'Clairvoyant in hindsight'

At Eagle Island on the Yukon about halfway through the race, Buser warned of the risk in Sorlie's tactic. The Iditarod has a rich history of rabbits who falter and lose.

"If a guy succeeds,'' Buser said, "he looks like a hero. If he fails, people will be saying he should've done this or should've done that differently. We're all clairvoyant in hindsight."

Sorlie succeeded and became a hero. He'd clearly trained a team for long runs and minimal rest. There might have been teams in the 2003 race with more foot speed, but they needed more rest to retain that speed.

In a tactic as old as endurance racing in all sports, Sorlie managed to run the speed out of the fastest teams and in that way beat them to the finish in Nome. King ended up third in 2003; Buser fourth. Ramy Brooks from Nenana, now gone from the Iditarod scene, closed fast on Sorlie to come within about 10 minutes of victory, but he couldn't catch the winner.

Expectations are that one or more mushers will try to duplicate Sorlie's strategy this year for a very simple reason: Many have been thinking about and planning for an Interior race since midwinter, when mushers shell-shocked by the bad trail north of the Alaska Range in 2014 started lobbying for the Fairbanks start.

Kasilof musher Monica Zappa, a 30-year-old rookie last year, might have best summed up the feelings of 2015 mushers on Thursday night when she confessed she'd become a nervous wreck waiting for the Iditarod to announce the location for the restart. She called last year's run down the Dalzell Gorge and across what once was the Farewell Burn a "torturous nightmare."

She expected she'll still have to get 20 miles down the Tanana River outside of Fairbanks before she's finally "able to breathe a sigh of relief."

By then, the race leaders are sure to be well to the front of her on a trail only expected to get better as the race rolls west. The Fairbanks route dodges nearly 350 miles of little-traveled country south of Ruby where the trail is sometimes iffy.

Beyond Ruby heading west, all that changes. There is regular snowmachine traffic that pounds down a highway-like trail from Ruby to Galena, then to Nulato, Kaltag, Unalakleet and northwest along the Norton Sound coast to Nome.

Two-way racing in 2003

The year Sorlie won, the Iditarod looped south from Kaltag down the Yukon River to the village of Anvik before turning around and coming back upriver to Kaltag, the only time the Iditarod has featured two-way mushing. The loop was necessary to make up for the distance the 1,000-mile race loses in shifting the Willow restart to Fairbanks.

There is no regular trail for about 120 miles between Kaltag and the village of Grayling near Anvik. The trail in this stretch is almost always soft and slow. The Iditarod is not looping to Anvik this year, however.

Instead, it will swing north for about 80 miles from Galena to Huslia -- the hometown of sled-dog racing legend George Attla -- and then turn south again for 80 miles to rejoin the regular Iditarod route at Nulato.

Iditarod veteran Warner Vent, now retired and at home in Huslia, said both the Galena-Huslia trail and the Huslia-Nulato trail are in pretty good shape, though it has been snowing daily for almost a week in the area.

"There's been people traveling, but it keeps snowing over it,'' he said. "(But) there's base under (the trail), as long as they stay on it.''

The trail has yet to be marked for the Iditarod, he added, because the trail markers are sitting in sleds in Huslia behind snowmachines waiting for Iditarod gas to power them out on the trail. Vent, who is familiar with the Iditarod as a two-time runner-up in the race's early years, expected race officials would be along shortly to provide fuel.

The Iditarod has always been run on a financial shoestring, and even though it is a multimillion-dollar event today, operations haven't changed much beyond Alaska's largest city. Once the race leaves Anchorage, it depends heavily on volunteers and the sometimes patched-together Iditarod efforts to ensure mushers have a trail to follow.

This year everything has been made easier, Vent said, by the fact "there's hardly any snow anywhere.''

Too little better than too much

Despite all the problems caused by a snow-short year, it's better than too much snow. Serious problems arise when snows are heavy, requiring major efforts to break the trail open for mushers.

In 2009, the race stalled for a while at Ophir because the trail ahead was snowed in. In 1985, the race was officially put on hold because of deep snow. There's nothing in the long-range weather forecast to indicate those sorts of problems this year, which makes 2015 ideal for the fastest of the fast teams.

It will get interesting, too, because the Sorlie strategy of 2003 is not the only go-fast strategy, as Brooks' 2003 race illustrates. He was ninth out of Ruby and finished a very close second.

Some Alaska mushers -- notable among them two-time champ Mitch Seavey from Sterling -- have always wanted to run what marathon runners call "negative splits.'' A host of physiologists involved in all sorts of endurance sports from human running and cycling to dog racing have theorized that running negative or at least equal splits is the fastest way to the end of any race.

Seavey, who has a reputation for doing his homework, is obviously aware of the research, but the traditional Iditarod Trail has always presented an impediment to implementing the strategy.

The trail that climbs from Finger Lake into the Alaska Range and on to the Rohn checkpoint invariably gets worse with the passage of every team north. Top competitors thus go fast at the start to try to get through the range when the trail is best.

Early indication

All but one of the top finishers from 2014 -- including both Mitch Seavey and son Dallas, the 2014 champ -- were among the top-20 teams into Rohn that year despite some really bad trail coming down the Dalzell Gorge. In fact, the only top-10 finisher not among the first 20 into Rohn in 2014 was Montanan Jessie Royer, who hit Rohn in 23rd.

As is the case in most Iditarods, the Rohn standings show the eventual race winner can be expected to come from within a select group within hours of each other only a few hundred miles into the race, but the times from Rohn last year also tell the tale of the price paid for going out even a little too fast.

Buser led the race into Rohn into last year with Mike Williams Jr. from Akiak hot on his heels. Buser later faltered but hung on to finish sixth, his best finish in six years. Williams fell to 11th.

Eventual race winner Dallas Seavey hit Rohn more than seven hours behind Buser. Runner-up Aliy Zirkle from Two Rivers was four and a half hours behind in Rohn. Mitch Seavey, the third-place finisher, was just minutes in front of Dallas and almost seven hours back of Buser.

Immediately behind Buser and Williams came Nicolas Petit from Girdwood, a scratch; Paul Gebhardt from Kasilof, the 28th-place finisher; Hugh Neff from Tok, a scratch; Aaron Burmeister from Nome, the 10th-place finisher; and Cim Smyth from Big Lake, the 24th-place finisher.

Those results illustrate the fine line between going out fast enough to win the Iditarod and going out so fast you don't have any chance of winning. In the week ahead, top contenders will play a game of trying to go fast without going too fast on an unfamiliar track.

It could make for an entertaining game.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)

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.