Alaska News

Averaging 11 mph over 66 miles, Buser rolls into Tanana in the lead

Update, Tuesday 5:25 p.m.

After swearing off the idea of leading the pack of Iditarod mushers just days ago, Martin Buser of Big Lake rolled into Tanana at 3:15 p.m. Tuesday, at the front in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

The four-time champion took six hours to make the 66-mile trip from the previous checkpoint of Manley Hot Springs. That's a quick average pace of about 11 mph for his 16 dogs.

"I'm not going to jump out front," Buser said before Monday's restart in Fairbanks. "I want to be first at the end, not the first at Tanana."

Buser finished sixth last year and a disappointing 17th in 2013, despite leading both races early on.

"Now there's just too many good teams, too many good drivers," he said. "It's an awfully high order to win from wire to wire."

Until 4:49 p.m. when Hugh Neff of Tok pulled in, Buser was alone. Three-time runnerup Aily Zirkle arrived in third place at 4:55 p.m. Buser was more than an hour faster to Tanana than both of them.

Update, Tuesday 9 a.m.

Flat and fast -- that was the motto of some of the top racers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, who pulled into the Manley checkpoint early Tuesday after 150 miles of running atop river ice from Monday's restart in Fairbanks.

As Tuesday's first light was dawning on the village of about 100 residents, Kuskokwim 300 champion Pete Kaiser of Bethel and two-time Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey of Sterling arrived and quickly left, grabbing the early race lead. Kaiser was out at 7:58 a.m., with Seavey 40 minutes behind him.

Earlier, Nicolas Petit of Girdwood, who averaged 9.5 mph with his full string of 16 dogs on a 90-mile run from Nenana, was first into the Manley Hot Springs checkpoint, where he paused to rest.

"Perfect, you could never ask for a better trail," a frosty Petit told Iditarod Insider after he pulled into Manley at 3:01 a.m. "One little chunk of overflow, no hills, no windrifts. Just go go go."

Hugh Neff of Tok completed the 90-mile jaunt from Nenana even faster, averaging nearly 10 mph on the 90-mile trip from the previous checkpoint, even including stops to rest his 15 dogs. He reached Manley at 4:14 a.m. in third place, right behind Buser.

That speed may be the hallmark of a pack of frontrunners as the rerouted Iditarod Trail follows the Tanana River onto the Yukon River to Galena, before shooting north to Huslia and returning to more flat river running in Koyukuk and on to Kaltag.

"It was a good trip," said Petit, "probably the best mushing of the whole year."

That would be true for most of mushers living in Southcentral Alaska, which has endured a winter of warmth and rain -- but very little snow -- leaving racers searching far and wide for decent places to train.

Checking into Manley behind third-place Neff were, in order, two-time runner-up DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow at 4:32 a.m.; Aaron Burmeister of Nome at 4:59 a.m.; rookie Thomas Waerner of Norway at 5:11 a.m.; Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers, the runner-up in the last three Iditarods, at 5:14 a.m.; Mats Pettersson of Sweden at 5:22 a.m.; Kelly Maixner of Big Lake at 5:40 a.m.; and Yukon Quest champion Brent Sass of Eureka at 5:50 a.m.

Then came a musher at once a familiar face and a surprise. Four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey, whose team of young dogs faltered to a next-to-last finish in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race last month, was 11th, just two minutes behind Sass.

In addition to breaking in a new crew of animals, Mackey is dealing with Raynaud's Syndrome, which, he says, causes "circulation issues that would put most people on a beach or in front of a heater."

Mackey is in frequent pain due to his illness, and the subzero cold on the Tanana River was no salve. At 6 a.m. Tuesday, the National Weather Service reported minus-19 temperatures in Nenana.

To deal with the brutal cold, Mackey is wearing battery-powered gloves and custom-made, heavy-duty mittens he purchased from Sea Fur Sewing in Sitka.

"I don't have to prove myself to anybody," said Mackey, the only musher to win the Yukon Quest and Iditarod back to back.

By 6:30 a.m., a dozen mushers had arrived in Manley.

Mike Campbell

Mike Campbell was a longtime editor for Alaska Dispatch News, and before that, the Anchorage Daily News.