In what could become a morning ritual, I called up my blogging counterpart Doug Swingley, the four-time Iditarod champ, for an analysis of the trail thus far. Our database includes a few phone calls, The Iditarod Insider GPS, and officially posted checkpoint times.
Immediately, we began the job of starring our favorite mushers based on what we were seeing through the first night on the trail. Our criteria included team speed, past reputation, and what we saw as a "long range patience" that would set the team up for strength and resilience on the Yukon River later this week.
Front of the Iditarod pack
In our field of top mushers, we particularly like the game plan of DeeDee Jonrowe, Martin Buser (himself a four-time Iditarod champion, with the fastest time ever on the northern route) and Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race musher Ken Anderson. We gave these mushers two stars because their pace indicates they are on close to a 50-50 run and rest schedule. It sets them further back in the pack, but they are keeping the batteries charged.
Jonrowe and Buser rested five hours and more in Skwentna. Anderson cautiously rested two hours in Yentna. This puts these three mushers close to 50-50, a universally acknowledged formula for success in the dog mushing world. Interestingly, Doug reminds us that his record breaking strategy in 1995 would have included a six-hour rest in Skwentna.
Our one star mushers include Mitch Seavey. He rested one and a half hours in Yentna and nearly four in Skwentna. John Baker, one of the most consistent Iditarod competitors ever, gets a star along with Cym Smyth, Jesse Royer, Pete Kaiser, five-time Iditarod champion Rick Swenson (the winningest ever), Aliy Zirkle, and last year's second place finisher, Hans Gatt. They conservatively rested their teams.
In our one star group, special mention is deserved for Dallas Seavey, the young Yukon Quest champ, who also is Mitch Seavey's son and and very fit, nationally ranked former wrestler. Like Anderson, Dallas Seavey rested four hours on the trail to Skwentna, we deduce by his time and pace, and is setting himself up to the front with a well rested team.
Significantly, we know that Dallas has a team tough enough to forge to the front.
Paul Gebhardt is positioning to the front with Dallas. We put him in the same category: race experienced and a very tough, savvy musher.
Blistering fast trail shaping the race
In many ways, a unique opportunity is developing for these mushers because the trail appears to be in excellent shape. Conceivably, they could blow through Finger Lake, and continue up the southern shoulders of the Alaska Range, resting halfway to Rainy Pass in the afternoon Monday sun.
In a grand stroke, they could then move up and over Rainy Pass, negotiate the Dalzell Gorge on the north side of the range and find themselves very well positioned in Rohn.
Rohn is key to the plans of lead mushers because it essentially puts them out of danger. They are to the front of the pack, away from traffic jams, and in steep and dangerous descents. Arrive in Rohn with a healthy string of huskies and an experienced musher is ready to start racing across the relatively safe, wide Yukon River basin.
Sebastian Schnuelle falls into a very special category. He is a happy musher, so obviously content with a wilderness adventure, that we immediately acknowledge his style. He has rested only three and a half hours, but that has always been his game plan. Allowing his dogs to easily move with little of the stress required by faster speeds, and the team is capable of quite easily covering long distances minimal rest. As always, he is a top five contender, and does not appear to be changing his strategy.
And now, the defending Iditarod champ
Well, what can we say as we view the GPS tracker and see that Lance Mackey is leading the pack through Finger Lake this early morning? We deduce that Mackey has rested four hours and 18 minutes and is driving one of the fastest teams on the trail. In vintage Mackey fashion, he has taken control of the race to the front.
Mackey is nursing a bum knee, driving a very fast dog team, and has probably decided that a position at the front of the pack gives him the best and safest trail, especially down the notorious Happy Valley steps. This section of trail can deteriorate rapidly with the passing of just even a half-dozen teams, so his front position gives him a shot at the perfect trail. Attentive race fans may have noticed that the fastest times last night were posted by the front of the pack. Without actually being on the trail, we can imagine that the trail is getting chewed up and slowing the rear teams.
Mackey, in the early morning, is on a hard fast trail.
Mackey is undoubtedly heading for his favorite rest spot at Finnebar Lake, midway between Finger and Rainy Pass. After a desultory snooze in the Monday afternoon sun, and a calorie-rich banquet, the team will probably erupt into a freight train as the sun sets, with no stops, up and over the Alaska Range to Rohn.
It's worth mentioning that Mackey is the master at banquet design. Somewhere between art and science, he knows to offer the right ratio of fatty foods and protein rich foods, based on what he is sensing with the dogs and feeling about the trail and weather. This is a skill not to be underestimated. The key is to keep the dogs eating regularly and voraciously, always with a view to performance days down the trail.
The true fan can be asking many questions about the Mackey team. The old familiar core of hardened veterans has been replaced with raw athletic gems. How will the master guide them over the Alaska Range divide?
Based on past experience, we can expect the field to winnow to 10 teams as contenders at Rohn later this evening.
Joe Runyan, champion of the 1985 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and 1989 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, worked with former Iditarod champion Jeff King on his book, "Cold Hands, Warm Heart" as well as with defending Iditarod champion Lance Mackey on his autobiography, "The Lance Mackey Story", and will be providing commentary and analysis of Iditarod 39 for Alaska Dispatch.