Throughout the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the leaders closely monitor their competitors and strive to separate themselves -- a pattern that began in Fairbanks and will not end until Nome. It has not always been this way.
It's hard to tell just when the current pattern of racing began, but it probably started in the late 1990s. Mushers used to travel in loose groups for much of the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest. Teams would begin to separate late on the second half of the trail. There was always competition, but during the first part of a long race, the opposition was assessed before the real racing began over the final couple hundred miles.
In today's world of racing, fewer teams travel together. Look back through this year's Iditarod field: Only two groups have emerged as traveling companions. Brothers Jason and Lance Mackey have been together since Tanana. And the Berington twins -- Anna and Kristy -- and Charlie Bejna are moving together, partly because they work essentially out of the same kennel.
Fifteen years ago, race groups formed on the trail among teams that traveled roughly the same speed. They modified their run-rest cycles to correspond to each other.
No more. It appears that even positions 50 through 60 are as focused on racing as the top 10.
I think it's a safe bet to say that no one in the top 20 has built a campfire on this year's frigid Iditarod. And I bet that campfires among the entire Iditarod field could be counted on my hands. The change from the camaraderie of the past to today's hard racing is part of the natural evolution of the sport.
Change comes with a price. Competition overrides companionship. Dogs win and dogs lose. Intense rivalry means more selective breeding, better nutrition and improved training. Dog racing is evolving in much the same way as other pro sports -- talented animals are traded or leased.
Dogs lose because fewer dogs can make the top grade. However, the increasing popularity of sled-dog tours gives many dogs that are a half-step from a competitive team another venue.
Beware of Mitch
Dallas Seavey of Willow and Aaron Burmeister of Nenana were pacing the field early Monday. Dallas is faster, but if Aaron can force him to cut his rests short for the remaining 170 miles, that could change. Neither Aliy Zirkle nor Jesse Royer can be counted out. Neither should negeqvak (Yupik for "north wind").
Last year saw negeqvak become the deciding factor to give Seavey one of the biggest come-from-behind victories of all time. New, dry snow coupled with forecasted wind could again be instrumental. Some of the Iditarod's most memorable victories have come with the wind, including Rick Swenson's record fifth win in 1991 and Libby Riddles' historic victory as the first woman champion in 1985.
Dallas and dad Mitch rested together briefly between Kaltag and Unalakleet. Interestingly, they are the only mushers in the top six taking a break in Shaktoolik.
Strategy? Coincidence? Don't stop long in Koyuk, Dallas, or you'll be traveling side-by-side with your dad before long.
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 International Sled Dog Race.