This past Saturday, the Annual Iditarod had it’s beautiful ceremonial start through the streets of Anchorage in front of thousands of excited fans cheering and wishing them well. The 1000 mile sled-dog race starts with this non-competitive leg on man-made snow burns with over a foot of the white stuff keeping them off the streets, the rocks, gravel, and any other rough stuff they may encounter on their sleds. Racers show off their beautifully athletic dogs, take their time along the course, wave to crowds, stop for a hot dog or a beer, and even share pictures with fans – all televised world wide to tens of thousands with tower cams, interviews, and helicopters following everyone. Running along the in the ceremonial start, the people who love this sport witness everything romantic about sled-dog racing that makes the Last Great Race so well named.
Of course on Sunday’s Re-Start from Willow, everything was going to change. Gone will be the crowds, the TV cameras, and the helicopters. Gone were the hot dogs and beer. Gone was the slow pace as well, as now the race was on.
Gone also was the simple trail through town. Dog teams weren’t just going up and down pathways along a creek; but cutting across frozen rivers, up portages, through trees. In the first 48 hours they were on their way to Rainy Pass, the highest point on the trail at over 3500 ft. Nearly all of that elevation is climbed in the 153 miles to get to that checkpoint, and by the time they reach Nikolai at mile 263 (where most of the leaders are coming in as I post this on Tuesday) they will have most of the decent down from the mountains complete. But to say that the trail from Nikolai is “all downhill from Rainy Pass” might get a punch in the face from the racers.
Unlike the nicely piled up, manicured, burns of Anchorage; the Iditarod Trail from Rainy Pass to Nikolai doesn’t have the snow pack for the sleds to run on. In fact, it doesn’t have the snow at all. The initial run is on a glacier, which say what you want about global warming, won’t change much from year to year. It’s when they get off the trouble starts. While it has been quite cold up in the interior, a warmer first part of the winter when there was moisture left little snow to be had. The trail is more gravel, rocks, and glare ice than it is snow. Pictures are coming back of dry sandy brown landscapes that look more like winter in Kansas than in Alaska. Riders are complaining about rocks frozen hard into the ground that feel more like hitting concrete than earth. Word is that the ugliness of the terrain is great for the dogs. Most of the leaders still have all 16 of their dogs on the line, and they are loving the nice conditions and all the variety to the scenery (instead of constant white snow in front of them). The riders are hating life. They are getting rocked on their sleds, and doing what they can to keep those high tech holders in one piece, let alone their bodies. Leader Martin Buser uses replaceable plastic runners, which he keeps four pair on the sled – but he went through them all and half of the permanent runner in the 10 hour run from Rohn (just past Rainy Pass) to Nikolai. He’s also nursing a sprained ankle suffered on the trail. Buser isn’t the only one. Most of those arriving in Nikolai have some injury of one kind or another; the worst is one favorite Aaron Burmeister who dislocated a knee.
Those who survive – and that is not an exaggeration, actually survive – the brutal ride from the start to Nikolai can rest assured the worst is over. It is still very very bad from here on out, including the cold windswept Yukon River, the harsh Bering Straight seaside run, and the potentially open sea ice on Norton Bay; but Ice is a lot more predictable than open gravel and ground.
The real race is truly on, though. Buser stunned the race last year by developing a new strategy to run dogs longer in the beginning and rest them longer in between runs. Last year he was way ahead at Nikolai because most were taking a 24 hour stop (mandatory, but can happen at any time on the race) up on top of Rainy Pass, but he pushed to Nikolai. Now most of the contenders are doing the same strategy, but not with the results Buser has found. Last year Buser remained in the lead until the strategy backfired on the tough headwinds he alone saw on the Yukon. Still, it’s believed the winner this year will be in the top 15 arriving in Nikolai, and at this point it looks like there are no surprises in the field.
But then again, this is just the start.