Courtesy Photo Prescott Valley Veterinarian Dr. Michael Walker examines a dog at a checkpoint during the 2011 Iditarod.
Who will safely shepherd sled and dogs through 1,100 miles of Alaska wilderness to win the 2013 Iditarod Sled Dog Race?
It's anyone's guess this year, because as the front runners near the halfway point, radical strategies are emerging among probably 15 mushers that have what it takes to win - amazing dog teams, incredible endurance, and crafty strategies.
Four-time winner Martin Buser, no youngster at age 55, started the chess game with an unprecedented run of 168 miles into Rohn without a significant rest stop. Other mushers, who stopped earlier for several hours, shook their heads. But a bleary-eyed Buser pulled into Rohn and declared his mandatory 24-hour rest stop in the hopes that his dogs would lounge around, eat and sleep and be raring to hit the trail again a day later. This put him a good seven hours ahead of everyone else with a strong, eager team of 14 dogs. He dropped two dogs in Takotna, possibly ones that didn't bounce back as quickly from the long run to Rohn. These dogs will be flown to a holding area and care for until he can pick them up after the race.
Mushers must take one mandatory 24-hour and one eight-hour stop during the race. The other rest stops are up to them. Some stop for several hours in checkpoints or camp on the trail, spreading straw for the dogs to sleep on, and cooking up their dinner. One Iditarod blog, Zuma's Paw Prints, states that during the race, the dogs need about 12,000 calories a day, the equivalent of 50 Big Macs! And they must drink a lot of water, which mushers must thaw and carry to their animals at each stop. Mushers can't cheat, because veterinarians evaluate the dogs at each significant checkpoint, and they can pull any dog that doesn't appear in top notch shape.
Lance Mackey, another four-time champion and history-making musher who won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest and the Iditarod back-to-back two years running, also is emerging as a big player in this year's race.
Mackey won four Iditarods in a row from 2007 to 2010, overcoming some big odds, but in 2011, he just didn't have the dog team. He came in 22nd, happy to finish. That year, John Baker, an Alaska native, was first under the burled arch in Nome, the end of the race.
The 2012 winner was young Dallas Seavey, whose father Mitch also was an Iditarod winner. He's a big contender again this year, as is his father.
But back to Lance Mackey. I have always liked this musher, because of his compelling story of recovering from cancer and his continued perseverance despite the after-effects that he still has to live with. He is known for being nice to his fans, truly loving his dogs, and pulling out wins despite some amazing obstacles.
Prescott Valley veterinarian Michael Walker, who has volunteered at the Iditarod for quite a few years now, said he met Mackey and found the stories to be true. He was most impressed with the condition of Mackey's dogs, and Mackey's treatment of everyone with whom he came in contact.
So after a couple disappointing years, Mackey came out with what he thought was a great team for the Yukon Quest. But they didn't run for any number of reasons, and he scratched early in the race.
He went back home with only a couple weeks to prepare for the Iditarod. He left most of those dogs at the kennel, bringing only four from the Quest team, and filling in with a bunch of young dogs, some so untried that they had never run a 5-mile race, much less 1,100.
Iditarod commentators said it appeared that Mackey was training this team on the run, and he agreed, saying that if he could convince them to trust him always to feed, care for and protect them, they would gel and get the job done. Of course, in true Mackey style, his "team in training" was leading the entire race by Wednesday evening, and was within 27 miles of claiming the $7,000 prize for the first team to the Yukon.
I've been following the Iditarod for several years now, enjoying it as an "Iditarod Insider," the one subscription I feel I can't live without! It has a nifty GPS tracker, so I've been known to get up in the middle of the night to see where my favorite mushers are.
This race has so many mushers that could pull out all the stops and win it - Ally Zirkle, last year's second place winner, Jeff King, another multiple winner who retired and came back this year, and is now running in second place, and a host of other former winners and strong contenders!
Stay tuned, the second half should be even more exciting, and hopefully, I'll hear some news or get a photo or two from Dr. Walker if he can find a connection and time to send them!
Check out the Iditarod for yourself at my two favorite sites: Iditarod.com and Anchorage Daily News at ADN.com.
Posted: Thursday, March 7, 2013
Article comment by:
I'm interested in the Iditarod but not avid enough to search online. I enjoyed Heidi's succinct,thorough and very entertaining version. I want more!