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After the bloody noses and busted ski poles: Life of an Iditarod racer at rest

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: March 10, 2018
  • Published March 9, 2018

SHAGELUK — Musher Martin Buser slept in a pop-up yellow tent. Michi Konno bemoaned a broken ski pole. Aliy Zirkle made an unexpected stop, puzzling over her slow dogs.

As a trio of Iditarod leaders dueled their way up the trail Friday, the village of Shageluk (mile 486) buzzed with activity. Here, a quiet, snowy stretch of land near the school transformed into a busy sled dog parking lot, and a place where many mushers decided to stay for their required eight-hour break.

Throughout the day, they trudged in and out of a log building to sleep. And they cycled through the sometimes monotonous routine of a checkpoint layover: give dogs straw, feed dogs, feed yourself, nap and repeat until it's time to go.

Here are some scenes from the day, a look inside the hurry-up-and-wait world of sled dog racers at rest.

A windstorm and a bloody nose

Matthew Failor carries water to his dog team Friday in Shageluk. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Several mushers said they battled a gnarly windstorm overnight on the 55 miles of trail between the checkpoints of Iditarod and Shageluk. Among them: Willow musher Matthew Failor.

"It was snowing and blowing and you would turn and it'd be in your face and then it'd be at your side and it was just like 55 miles of breaking trail — literally," Failor said.

Watch the musher's view of the storm below:


"It was really intense," he said, "and then I got a bloody nose while it was blizzarding and I didn't know it, so it was just dripping and then I could taste it so I took a (dog) bootie and shoved the bootie in my nose."

Several mushers resting here Friday said the windstorm swamped the trail, leading to an exhausting run to Shageluk with days of racing still ahead.

"I couldn't even find the trail," said Tok musher Hugh Neff. "You definitely had to focus every second out there."

Kelly Maixner of Big Lake said he found himself knee-deep or even waist-deep in snow several times.

"We got four years' worth of snow in one race," he said.

'We are going slow, slow, slow, slow, slow'

Aliy Zirkle tends to her dogs Friday, March 9, 2018 in Shageluk. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

As musher Aliy Zirkle, of Two Rivers, carried a bucket to the washeteria here to get water for her dogs, she pondered her team. Many of the same dogs won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest earlier this year with her husband, Allen Moore.

Her 14 huskies, she said, are "gorgeous" and "smooth," but they're running slower than usual. She's not really sure why.

"We are going slow, slow, slow, slow, slow, slow, slow," she said. "There's not really anything you can do about it and I can't be the cheerleader for eight hours every run so I resigned to it."

Zirkle pulled into Shageluk at 8:52 a.m. Friday and opted to take her mandatory eight-hour rest.

"I'm an hour slower on every run than everyone I should be running with like Pete (Kaiser) and Jessie (Royer) and Richie (Diehl) and Aaron (Burmeister)," she said.

"So you can't make up an hour. But I'm not real bummed about it. I can't be."

A broken ski pole

Michi Konno arrives in Shageluk on Friday. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

When Michi Konno got here at 1:31 p.m. Friday, he carried half a ski pole.

Konno, a retired sprint musher, is competing in his first Iditarod. He said he uses his ski pole for three or four hours at a time — driving it into the snow and pushing off to help propel his team forward.

"All of a sudden it just snapped in half," he said as he kneeled in the snow here Friday, massaging ointment into one of his dogs' legs as children peppered him with questions: What is your name? What're you doing? What're you putting on your dog? Can I get your signature?

Konno, born and raised in Japan, moved to Alaska 25 years ago and started sprint mushing. He later retired and sold all his dogs. But, he said, he always thought about one day running the Iditarod.

Now, here he is.


Both sprint mushing and long-distance mushing are tough, he said. But the Iditarod requires a lot of thinking and planning.

Before he left the checkpoint, for example, he said he'd have to figure out how to make that ski pole whole again. There's a lot more trail ahead.

Call it a 'pup tent'

Martin Buser sleeps in a pop-up tent next to his dog team Friday in Shageluk. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser really loves his 2.5-pound yellow pop-up tent.

Sure, some mushers laugh at it, he said, but they're probably just jealous. When he camps along the trail (or at checkpoints like this one) he said the tent keeps him dry and blocks some of the wind.

"It just makes camping so much more fun," Buser said as he dished out water for his dogs. This is his 35th Iditarod.

"Hey kids, you want some breakfast water," he hollered at his 15-dog team.

After feeding his dogs, signing autographs and finishing a meal of shrimp — packed in a vacuum-sealed bag — he popped up his tent and climbed inside for a nap.

He said he's having fun on the trail this year and getting plenty of rest.

"We're not breaking any speed records," he said. "Maybe we'll go fast some other day."