Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Iditarod 2009: Have We Got A Whole New Race?

I've been watching the GPS, and something very interesting has just happened.

Jeff King and Hans Gatt -- who left Shaktoolik early this afternoon -- got to the Norton Sound, waited a while, then turned around and have returned to Shaktoolik. What this means -- though I admit this is just fairly educated speculation -- is that they felt they could not get across the Sound and would be better off back-tracking to wait at their last checkpoint. Aaron Burmeister and Mitch Seavy are camped out on a spit of land just before the long ice crossing. Apparently, they feel they are better off waiting there in the open rather than expending energy to get back to Shaktoolik.

What we have is one of those situations that makes the Iditarod such an amazing race. Only three teams have made it across the frozen Sound: Lance Mackey is through Koyuk and on his way to Elim; Sebastian Schnuelle and John Baker are in Koyuk. The next dozen teams are "stuck" before the ice crossing in Shaktoolik, with veterans Martin Buser and Ed Iten on their way in from the south.

So, what does this mean? Well, folks, I think we may have a whole new race brewing! You see, except for Burmeister and Seavy who are 12 miles ahead out on the point, all the rest of the top runners will be starting more or less together from Shaktoolik when the weather clears enough to let them get going. We could have a real dog race on our hands. Maybe not for the top three spots, but certainly for the rest of the top 10!

There are some factors that will play into this "new race" that I thought it might be helpful for me to write a little about. First and foremost, you've got a real imbalance of "run/rest" to consider. Those teams -- like Aliy's -- who got to Koyuk and stayed there will have rested extensively before taking off on the "new race." King and Gatt expended energy to move up the trail, then more energy to get back to Shaktoolik. Depending on how long the weather keeps them all there, they may or may not be able to catch up on rest.

Regardless, those teams have done a "turn around" which has an adverse impact on the attitudes of the dogs. You may recall that Lance had a short "turn around" when he fell asleep on the sled and lost the trail a few days ago, and he made a point of saying that it affected the morale of his dogs. Obviously it didn't affect them all that much, but they were also near the beginning of the race and not at the 750-mile mark where dogs are more susceptible to set-backs. A "turn around" out here on the coast can be devastating to morale.

Jeff and Hans both have teams of great, great dogs and I am in no way impugning them. The simple fact is that there's only so much "gas in the tank" and they've expended extra energy to no advantage. I also want to take a moment to commend Jeff and Hans on their decision to turn around. It had to be a bitter pill to swallow, but I admire them putting the safety and welfare of their dogs first. It takes real fortitude to give up ground in a race, and I respect them for it.

Martin Buser -- who arrived in Shaktoolik while I've been writing this -- is in very interesting position. The weather has given him a chance to "catch up" with teams that were ahead of him, but it has also given them rest time. My observation has been that Martin rested a lot early in the race in order to have energy in the tank for a late push, so we'll have to see how this works out. Depending on how long the weather keeps them all in Shaktoolik, he may be able to balance out the run/rest cycles... or not!

To say the least, the weather has provided us yet another Iditarod drama and I suspect it will be a very, very exciting finish for the top-10 places!

Go Aliy!


Mike Frerichs said...

I noticed this morning on the GPS that they were all sitting in Shaktoolik. The winds must be terrible out on the ice. It really does change the whole nature of the race. Great analysis. Glad Aliy's GPS is back.

Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis! Thank you!!!