10AM UNK Sunday—Zirkle, Seavey the Younger, Burmeister, and Baker to Unk by Joe Runyan
If we had our way, cameras would be running constantly to keep the pulse of what is now an extremely tight race—-featuring Aliy Zirkle, first into UNK, Dallas Seavey, 52 minutes in arrears and in appearance capable of closing the gap, Aaron Burmeister, 15 powerful huskies that are consuming feed like sumo wrestlers, and John Baker, still to the front with his reliable coastal dogs.
Confidentially, Burmeister and Dallas Seavey tell me in separate conversations, “John Baker scares me. I know what he has done in the past.”
What we know of the remainder of the race
Unk is another pivotal point in the race. For basics, we potentially have three runs left in the race—-if mushers who know how to do it, namely John Baker, decide to execute the plan. The first is a run from Unk to Shaktoolik (take a little break here for a hot meal and hydration) and around the sound to Koyuk. That’s run ONE.
Run Two is Koyuk (take a good four hour rest) and go Elim (short stop here for a hot meal and hydration for the dogs) and thence to Golovin and then White Mountain for a mandatory 8 hr break. That’s run TWO.
The final Third run is the 77 mile dash from White Mountain to the finish. Usually, the teams retain their same order from White Mountain to Nome, largely because the big 8 hour rest restores all the teams and the distance is not great enough to make monumental losses or gains.
Others may decide to break it up a little more with well placed shorter rests of two or three hours. Dallas Seavey is a big proponent of this way of racing. It’s obviously working well for him, but as the finish nears, Zirkle or Baker may force him into another strategy.
Conversations in the dog yard
Anxious to get a first hand account, I went back in the dog yard to find Dallas and Aaron with their dogs. Aliy was back in the checkpoint drying clothes so I did not talk to her. John Baker was busy taking booties off dogs and obviously focused on laying down straw for his dogs—so no conversation with him.
Dallas is one of those actively positive athletes who likes to visualize and verbalize his thoughts and plan. I think this is a good individual strategy because you are rehearsing a viewpoint in your mind, but also verbalizing it for review by peers. Therefore, he is an exceptional sound bite machine. In addition, he has the benefit of youth, superb conditioning (he wrestled at an international level) and a family tradition of mushing dogs, thereby increasing his perspective. Asked if he believes he can work his way to the front, he reasoned that he had already gained a considerable amount of time enroute to UNK from Kaltag, and felt he was in control of the race. His gap to Zirkle, the titular leader at the moment, is 52 minutes. Of course, Zirkle would contest his view of the race.
It’s a fair summary—just me thinking—-to say he might be right. He has the speed, the dogs are still eating very well, and he is working hard. “Well, it was -43f at times and I was wearing just what I have on and mostly working through the night.” Standing there bare handed, dressed in a light wind breaker pant and sweater ensemble, he was entirely believable. The math, according to my pundits, also favors his version. He probably made 1.5 hours on the Zirkle lead.
Aaron Burmeister continues to be amazed, delighted, and amused by the incredible appetite of his canine chargers. Aaron reports consumption of two large coolers of hot food on the trail My insiders note that he and team came in noticeably vibrant. Once again in UNK, the team consumed another “tank of food.” Still, the Dallas Seavey team was 45 minutes faster on the last run. Admittedly, this can be illusional since we don’t know , exactly, how much time on the trail was spent feeding, changing boots, and checking dogs.
John Baker can be described simply as steady and consistent. Both Aaron and Dallas considered him the most dangerous competitor on the trail, and respect his arctic hardened team. Baker trains north of the arctic circle and his dogs have that experience and knowledge to remain confident with the endless vistas and vulnerability of the coastal weather.
A Magnificent Apparatus
In the dog yard, note a magnificent apparatus fabricated by Harry Johnson, Jr. Composed of junk yard parts collected yesterday, Harry quickly welded all together in time to heat a 55 gallon drum of water for today’s arriving mushers.
I took a picture of Harry with Dave Olson, the 2012 Honorary Musher, in front of a banner advertising the Paul Johnson Memorial sled dog race. In honor of his brother Paul, Harry, his brother Middy Johnson, and siblings Henry “Gus”, Bruce, Brian, Merlin, Frank, Tia Wilson, Harrilyn Sager and his family, and his mother Ruth contacted sponsors and organized what has now become a premier race on the Bering Sea Coast. The Paul Johnson Memorial Norton Sound 450 has a large contingent of their mushers competing successfully in the Iditarod.
With 450 miles of trail, this race is a major organizational accomplishment which organizes communities.
The cold cannot be underestimated as a critical element in this segment of the race. All four front runners admitted that gear was tested. John Baker, who is probably more habituated and attuned to cold weather than anyone, was using gloves in the checkpoint chute to take off dog boots. Usually he is seen barehanded, casually attending to dog chores.
Burmeister and Seavey will rest as long as possible in Unk. If Baker and Zirkle allow it, Seavey hopes to get 4 hours rest, which he feels is sufficient to recharge his already animated team.