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Alaska and Yukon Headlines
At the Takotna checkpoint, Iditarod mushers rest, regroup and refuel for the next leg of the Last Great Race.March 6, 2014
Iditarod teams remain large. Most mushers are still running teams of 14 or more dogs. Mushers are surprised at how many dogs fared well through some of the roughest trail they’ve seen in the race’s history.
Four-time champion, Jeff King has towed a large trailer behind his sled since the start of the race. He carries one or two dogs in it at a time while the rest of the team travels down the trail.
“I’m using it both proactively for a dog that’s super important to later on in this race and in the event I see one that has a little tick of lameness, the first thing I do is give it a ride and then evaluate it so that if there’s something there, it’s not aggravated,” he said.
King has been resting his dogs en route for years. He says it saves energy for later in the race and takes some wear and tear of his equipment.
Wear and tear is something this year’s mushers know plenty about. They faced miles of rough and rugged, snow-free trail early on. But Canadian Michelle Phillips says mushers are definitely roughed up more than then the dogs.
“It seems that way, yeah. Definitely,” she said.
Her legs are covered in huge purple bruises. Phillips pulls a little blue vial out of her pocket. It’s medicine for both her and her dogs.
“It’s a homeopathic remedy arnica,” she said. “I’ve gone through half a bottle and anyone that’s stiff or sore is taking it as well.”
She is known for the homemade remedies she uses to treat stiff and sore dogs.
“It’s a whole blend that I roll on and I make my own massage oil and foot ointment that’s got emu oil and a bunch of herbs and essential oils,” Phillips said.
Hans Gatt spent some of his 24-hour layover massaging and walking his dogs. He still has his full team. He says he’s not letting anyone go until he has to.
“I’m not dropping anybody if they don’t have to be dropped,” Gatt said. “It would be a hoot to get to Nome with 16, but I know it’s not going to happen.”
Well over half the field still has teams numbering in the teens. Those with 16 dogs will have plenty of speed and power as they push forward toward the Yukon River.
Four-time Iditarod Champion Jeff King led mushers into the Ruby checkpoint at 6:45 a.m. Thursday, claiming the First Musher to the Yukon Award.
Two Rivers musher Sonny Lindner rode into Ruby an hour after King.
Martin Buser, Aaron Burmeister and John Baker round out the top-5.
Last year’s two top mushers, Aliy Zirkle and Mitch Seavey, are running in 11th and 15th place, respectively, and are currently between the Ophir and Cripple checkpoints.
As teams come off their mandatory 24-hour rest and head for the Yukon River, they’ll be thinking of how best to pick up the pace in what is turning out to be one of the most dramatic, but also the most competitive races in Iditarod history.
Teams haven’t yet reached the halfway mark. Twelve-time finisher Hans Gatt says even though he’s running a competitive team, he hasn’t even thought about racing yet.
“Well, usually you try to figure out any time after the 24-hour layover, but we’ll probably have to wait until we get to Ruby,” Gatt said.
Ruby is nearly 500 miles into the race. Gatt would have liked to there before he rested his team for 24 hours.
“I had to kind of patch up the dogs a little bit,” Gatt said. “I had some sick dogs that didn’t eat so I had to 24 here, otherwise, I’d be way down the trail.”
But a stopover in Takotna was exactly what Aliy Zirkle had planned.
“I always get to Takotna on my own schedule and never look at what’s happening,” she said. “I’ve looked and seen what people are doing and it’s pretty interesting. I guess I’m going to stick on my own schedule until the Yukon and then see where it works out.”
Her team was parked right next to defending champion Mitch Seavey’s. The two worked in the dog yard side-by-side, but shared few words as they focused on feeding their teams and packing their sleds.
“We’re running our own dogs right now, so if you kind of start with what your own dogs can do and then get out a little bit later and see where you’re standing compared to everyone else, I guess that’s what we’re doing,” Zirkle said.
Unlike other mushers, Zirkle says she isn’t scratching her head over the big, early push made by Martin Buser.
“It shouldn’t be surprising after what he did last year,” she said.
It’s the second year in a row Buser has set a hard and fast pace early. Zirkle says she, like many, had expected Norwegian Robert Sorlie to be something of a rabbit this year. His team was parked further up the hill, also resting for 24 hours.
“I think this is the best team I’ve run ever, so far but you never know.”
Sorlie’s team is energetic, boisterous and powerful. They’ve pulled him speedily over rough trail and dragged him through checkpoints, eager to keep moving down the trail. He says they haven’t even begun to race.
“I have not pushed them yet. I have not pushed them. I will not push them before I get to Ruby and after that I think,” he said. “They can go their own speed. That is the best for them, o go their own speed. They know best what they can do, not me.”
Sorlie’s approach involves fast runs and lots of rest. He doesn’t like to change his ways. A tried and true race plan is something former champion Dallas Seavey also likes to stick with.
“Just because Aliy, myself, my dad – oh wait a second is that the first and second place mushers from the last two Iditarods? – Now what are all of us doing? We’re not doing a flashy race, but I can guarantee you, we’re all going to be there at the end,” he said.
The younger Seavey likes to keep things relatively simple.
“A lot of times when I see mushers do big moves now, what it tells me is they’ve used their joker, they’ve played that card, they don’t have that card to play on the coast,” he said.
Regardless of where mushers start to make strategic moves, they will eventually have to cut a little rest if they want to stay competitive. It’s something Ray Reddington Junior is well aware of.
“Well, I’d like to start doing it somewhere along the river and I’m going to have a little bit of fun here myself and get a little pressure off the dogs,” he said. “Hopefully our run times will stay up and some of these guys will slow down a little bit.”
This is Reddington’s 13th Iditarod. He’s climbed his way into the top-10 the last three consecutive years, but he says he can’t let his guard down.
“I mean how many of us when you figure it out is within an hour or two of each other right now,” Reddington said. “You can’t mess up. If you mess up now, you might have ten teams go by you just for one little hiccup.”
Teams have a quick jaunt over to Ophir out of Takotna where they can readjust their plans and take care of dogs. It’s still more than 140 miles to Ruby where the race meets the Yukon River and teams will presumably start to pick up the pace.
Jeff King took the lead in the 2014 Iditarod when he charged out of Cripple Wednesday night ahead of Sonny Lindner. King left about 8:30 and Lindner followed at 9:09. Both were racing with 14 dogs.
Aaron Burmeister, John Baker, Paul Gephardt and Martin Buser trailed the leaders and were still in Cripple early Thursday morning. Buser is among 26 mushers who have taken their 24-hour mandatory layover. Neither King nor Lindner has taken the long layover.
Katherine Keith resumed the lead among rookies. She was out of Ophir.
Last year’s winner, Mitch Seavey was out of Ophir, too, and in 15th place. Aliy Zirkle, who finished second last year, was in ninth place and out of Ophir.
Rookie Lev Shvarts scratched Wednesday night in Rohn.
While Aaron Burmeister collected his gold nugget prize at the halfway point of Cripple, Jeff King and Sonny Lindner were looking ahead to Ruby, where both plan to take their 24-hour rests -- an unconventional move that could pay off or backfire, depending on how things unfold along the trail.March 5, 2014