As Iditarod lead teams slow down, will a young gun make a move?
Zack Steer | Mar 10, 2012
Whether you are a casual observer of Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race or a true mush-a-holic, this year’s race is shaping up as one of the most exciting in recent history. A lead group of 15 talented mushers and strong dog teams is driving toward the finish in Nome, separated by a scant few hours that can be overcome with the right combination of strategy, endurance and a little bit of luck. How rare it is to have this many teams so close to the front at this point? Most years, Iditarod is down to few dueling teams by the time the race leaves the Yukon River.
Over the last 36 hours, Mitch Seavey and Aliy Zirkle have played a game of Yukon River leapfrog from checkpoint to checkpoint. Close behind is a large group of dog-mushing vultures, circling around the leaders and waiting for a mistake so they can move to the front of the pack. They know it’s important to be leading at the end of the race, not the beginning or the middle. Watch for a closing surge from a team not now in the top five over the last three days of racing.
For insight into team strength let’s look at the top-15 teams’ so-called “marker” run times from Ruby to Galena, relatively accurate for all teams except Zirkle, who chose not to take her eight-hour Yukon rest in Ruby:
Ranked fastest to slowest:
1. Paul Gebhardt — 5 hours, 41 minutes
2. Jeff King — 5 hours, 48 minutes
3. Ray Redington Jr. — 5 hours, 54 minutes
4. Mike Williams Jr. — 5 hours, 55 minutes
5. Jake Berkowitz — 5 hours, 56 minutes
6. Pete Kaiser — 5 hours, 59 minutes
7. Ken Anderson — 6 hours, 3 minutes
8. Ramey Smyth — 6 hours, 5 minutes
9. Dallas Seavey — 6 hours, 17 minutes
10. Sonny Lindner — 6 hours, 21 minutes
11. John Baker — 6 hours, 22 minutes
12. DeeDee Jonrowe — 6 hours, 30 minutes
13. Aaron Burmeister — 6 hours, 33 minutes
14. Aliy Zirkle — 6 hours, 49 minutes
15. Mitch Seavey — 7 hours, 8 minutes
Based on this data, it becomes obvious that the team speed of most of the top-five teams is decreasing, with the notable exception of King. You would expect a fall-off in travel times toward the end of the race, but this race is far from over.
Although fastest from Ruby to Galena, Gebhardt has yet to take his mandatory eight-hour rest and will have much ground to make up afterwards.
The wild card in the group appears to be King — who is currently running fast and cutting rest, having stayed in Galena a scant three hours, compared to most teams’ four-hour break. King is trying to establish his position before the final run up the coast.
Dallas has slowed his team’s pace, perhaps having decided to wait until he is beyond the Yukon to unleash his “monster” dog team. If Dallas or King want to win this year’s race, now would be the time to rip off a monster 15-hour run from Nulato to Unalakleet like Lance Mackey did to grab the lead from King for good in his 2010 Iditarod victory. It would be ironic if King were able to match the feat that ensured his defeat.
Zirkle has run a textbook display of Yukon River mastery – turning a three-hour deficit at Ruby into a 3-hour lead in Kaltag. Zirkle stuck with her schedule of 10-hour runs, and is running a brave, solo course at the front of the pack. Her decision to take her mandatory eight-hour rest in Galena has given her a fresher team farther down the trail. But her lead looks transitory, as Dallas Seavey and King are sure to pass her out of Kaltag while she rests again. Unless that duo pushes through to Unalakleet non-stop, Zirkle will pass them again to take the First to the Gold Coast Award, worth $2,500. At this point in the race Zirkle’s is definitely the team to beat.
Mitch Seavey’s team is faltering, and he knows it. Mitch’s long runs out of his 24-hour layover seem to have sapped his team’s endurance. His only recourse is to continue to run long and rest short. Unfortunately, there is too much trail ahead for this to be an effective strategy. Expect to see him fall behind in the next two days.
I would pay close attention to Aaron Burmeister, who is fast approaching King and Baker with consistently fast run times. Burmeister spent his younger years in Nome and is very confident running in the sometimes-harsh coastal conditions. Next to Baker, Burmeister is probably the most capable coastal dog driver in the field. With 15 dogs still on his line, Burmeister has the luxury of paring down his team to the fastest dozen along the coast as he works his way toward his old home.
The young teams of Redington, Berkowitz, Kaiser and Williams Jr. appear ready to start reeling in faltering members of the lead pack. With an average age of 27, this gang of four young guns looks to be setting up for a strong finish. Berkowitz and Kaiser have teamed up since Ruby, consistently running some of the fastest splits between checkpoints. These guys have nothing to lose and are willing to take chances some veteran mushers might not.
Look for at least one of them to finish in the Top-3 — and perhaps pull off an upset victory.
The lead mushers will certainly to be glad when they are off the Yukon River tonight, as temperatures have reached minus 40 in some pockets. When temperatures are that cold, everything from sled runners to the passage of time seems to slow down. Drivers are trying to crunch the numbers on all the different possible run scenarios and options they have before them — not an easy task when you’ve had four hours sleep in the past 48 hours.
At this point in the race none of the leaders has fewer than 12 dogs, a remarkable fact given the distance and terrain traveled. At the end of the race, it does not matter how many dogs you have in your team. Quality of the dogs matters most. We are nearing the point of the race where it is no longer fun, when the task of moving up the trail is more like work than a hobby. Each team at the front of the pack is focusing on the finish line, and what they need to do to get there in the least amount of time.
Zack Steer, a five-time Iditarod finisher, is sitting out this year’s race as wife Anjanette takes the kennel’s team to Nome. He owns and operates the Sheep Mountain Lodge with Anjanette and two young boys. Zack maintains a small kennel of racing sled dogs, who are much happier to be taking Anjanette (100 pounds lighter than Zack) to Nome this year.