Alaska News

Iditarod mushers' strategy goes back to the future

It is notable that this Iditarod is shifting away from the strategies of the past eight or 10 years and reverting to the Doug Swingley-Martin Buser style of the past champions.

Though it's not exactly the short run/rest cycle that four-time champion Martin Buser used to become the first to break the nine-day Iditarod barrier, it's close. The runs of the leaders have consistently been around 70 miles, with most of them also taking five-hour-plus rests.

The emerging pattern seems to be keeping the teams fast. Even teams in the middle or back of the pack are moving about 9 mph on this schedule. The difference between the leader and the trailers is one extra rest stop for the latter – and about 1 mph.

Dog care at those breaks now becomes of utmost importance.

Small foot issues, such as a toe abrasion, can cause huge problems later on. Fans noticed Martin Buser running from Manley to Tanana without booties on his dogs. Dogs are born without booties. They can and do run well without them.

Cool feet

Dogs also lose excess heat through their feet. Booties can hold that heat in and cause red, sore feet. It is a good thing to let the feet stay cool at times on a friendly trail such as the one teams have been running on.

The leaders all have big teams leaving Tanana. The first few teams are at a campsite called Kokrines, approximately 60 miles up the trail. The temperature at Kokrines (locally called the Bible Camp) was minus-38 early this morning.

One will see quite a few dog coats at those temperatures. Some dogs have great coats of their own, but many of the dogs racing today are fairly short-haired. They need a little help with temperature control.

Cutting rest

Aliy Zirkle moved to the front when Buser took his mandatory eight-hour Yukon River break in Tanana. He gained some time on Aliy on the run out of Tanana, but not a bunch. All of the teams will be dropping off now into the 8-to-9 mph range.

A good time for a team to move from the middle of the standings toward the front of the field will be over the next 170 miles. Cutting each of two rests short by an hour or so can accomplish this. But it takes a very well-conditioned team.

Not a lot of teams in the field can pull off cutting their rest cycle. Ken Anderson is one, maybe Jessie Royer, Jeff King and certainly Dallas Seavey. Those teams are already close to the lead.

The teams of Joar Ulsom, John Baker and Hugh Neff also have the ability to skip rests and continue at a decent pace. However, they are not showing quite enough speed at this time to hold a position toward the front without continually shorting rest.

Teams lacking a half-mile an hour of speed need some weather or trail help in the form of heavy snow or storms. At this point the trail looks fast and unchanging. And cold.

Jeff King must be shaking his head. Cold on the Quest, which led to his decision to scratch, and now cold again.

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. His wife, Zoya DeNure, is among the 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.