October 31, 2014

Professional fans offer tips

Professional Fan offers Tips

By Joe Runyan

The true Iditarod fan embraces am unapologetic curiosity days before the March 2 start.  I once asked an AP reporter why he requested the Iditarod assignment,   “Few sporting events change and evolve over a period of days.  It doesn’t even matter to me who wins, because the individual challenges, the trail, the dogs, make it easy to find a story.”  Later, he showed me a tableau of photos, revealing angst, exhilaration, exhaustion, frustration, disappointment, and triumph.    I’ll take it on that level, too, and grant that we are all introspective as we compare experiences of others with our own—how we would negotiate a storm, would we be prepared, provided with gear, confident, and understand a rapport with sixteen exuberant canines?

But, I wondered, how about the professional fan?   The one who acknowledges all those existential questions—and  yet finds the drama of the Iditarod in the story of who WINS.   I’ll give you a few memories of one advanced professional level fan.  

One of my  Iditarod contemporaries was the late Susan Butcher  (1986, 1987, 1988, 1990 champ.)  I screwed up her record of three consecutive wins in 1989 and got to Nome first, while she was second.   I can say that she wanted to win in 1989, but after a few years she accepted the result, and even after a few more years she might have even given me a little credit.   I enjoyed badgering  her—she had a great sense of humor— and we were good friends, especially on the trail when we engaged in epic discussions about the pros and cons of strategy and the possibilities of outcomes.  By the late 1990’s we were both retired from mushing and often found ourselves working on the trail for different film crews.  This provided plenty of opportunities, as we waited in checkpoints for the front pack to arrive, for lively debates, disagreements and thorough analysis. 

On one occasion in Ruby , a checkpoint on the Yukon River, I interviewed her, ostensibly to get her impressions of the race.  Very quickly the interview fell apart— we lost track of who was actually participating in that year’s Iditarod—and Susan was offering her opinions of how she would win the race.  Off camera, I was just about ready to drop to the snow rolling in laughter.  By then, realizing that she was supposed to be the commentator, not a participant, Susan also found it very amusing.  It only reinforced, however, her credibility as a professional Iditarod fan.

Susan was certainly capable of the kind of empathy and reflection which characterized our AP reporter colleague, but her focus was, without argument, about who was going to win and how and why.   Certainly, my own interest matched hers and I assumed that everyone following the race felt the same way.   When she and her husband Dave Monson visited my home in New Mexico, the conversation after dinner invariably returned to the theme of winning the Iditarod, a consistently interesting conversation. Only recently has it occurred to me that some fans are only mildly interested in who wins. 

As a rationale, however, watching a winning strategy unfold is a thing of beauty and to be appreciated.    Only assuming that Dean Osmar, the 1984 Iditarod champ with an encyclopedic mind who will figure prominently in this blog’s coverage of 2013 race, is a fan who ponders the art of winning,  I called him last night. “Dean,  what are you looking for in this year’s race.  How would you advise a fan?”

Dean is a sensitive human with emotions, but he didn’t waste a breath about sunsets at Rainy Pass.  Quickly he summarized the field, “Ray Redington, I hope he wins some day, of course, Dallas Seavey and Mitch Seavey, Aaron Burmeister seems really strong this year,  Aliy Zirkle, especially with Allen Moore’s (her husband and winner of the 2012 Yukon Quest) best dogs, Ramey Smyth, he’s so tough in the end, if he can just stay with the pack over the Alaska Range,  Jeff King, very impressive with his team winning the Kusko 300, Paul Gebhardt, because he’s my neighbor and I see him, and I have to root for Sonny Lindner because he’s my age.   Maybe he can battle the younger mushers?   Sonny has some dogs from Ric Swenson (the 5x champ decided not to run this year and loaned some of his best dogs to good friend Sonny) and knows how to race them. Mike Williams, Jr, I hope he does well, but he has to prove himself again in the top ten.”  Did he miss someone?  Sure, but we’ll mention all the 20 top contenders, in time.

“I look for at least five mushers to be steady the first couple of days.   King, Mitch Seavey, Dallas Seavey,Smyth, and Gebhardt might not even look like they are in the race.  They are not going to risk jeopardizing a great team with extended runs.  Gebhardt has proven that you can be in 25th place early in the race and emerge in the top five at the end.  Dallas Seavey (2013 champ) is aggressive but it won’t bother him if players are ahead of him.   By Takotna, where most of the mushers will stop for the mandatory 24 hour rest, the fan can evaluate the strength of teams.  I look at Takotna because that’s a key checkpoint to compare travelling times and rest times.”  Dean assumes that most mushers will plan on a 24 hour in Takotna.  It’s musher friendly, about a third of the way, and entails no significant risk of trail failures. 

Beyond Takotna to Ophir and to Iditarod, the trail can be soft over windblown tussocks that can make going tedious.  It’s also a long ways, close to a hundred miles, and therefore takes considerable risk taking to travel the trail first into the unknown.   It’s easier, more conservative, to follow behind on a broken trail. As an indicator of this risk aversion, note that not one top twenty musher went beyond  Takotna in 2012.

However, there are contrarians, to include another important figure in our blog narrative with the necessary Professional fan qualifications.   I called Doug Swingley, now a retired musher, in Lincoln, Montana, late morning, just after feeding several hundred of his world class homing pigeons.  (I have some Swingley birds in my loft.)    Like Susan Butcher, Doug has a lively interest in the race and I have to remind him that he is now an observer, a blog contributor, and not a race favorite in 2013.  The 4X champ won three of his Iditarods on the southern route to Iditarod (the odd year route.)  In addition, in a clear challenge to the thinking of our present day mushers, Doug marched past Takotna and took his twenty-four hour mandatory in Iditarod.   Historically, Swingley’s 1995 Iditarod was the fastest until John Baker broke both Swingley’s (southern record) and Martin Buser’s (northern record) in 2011.  In fairness to Swingley, however, Baker started in Willow and Swingley started in Wasilla, thirty or forty miles longer.

At any rate, like a hawk that made a kill flying over Iditarod, Doug wants a musher to defy present thinking and push on to Iditarod.  “It’ll take a younger musher with no fear.  Jessie Royer has a really nice team which travelled ten miles an hour in the mountains during the Race to the Sky (350miles).  I was impressed.   Aaron Peck, who is being mentored by Sebastian Schnuelle (retired, but a top ten finisher on numerous occasions), has a fast team, but the mind-set of a patient musher who is willing to travel long hours at an easy pace.  He could do it, shake things up in the front.”

Doug likes to watch a consistent game plan.  “So many mushers get in the race and get excited.  They ditch the game plan.  Dallas Seavey and John Baker have trained long distances and they have the discipline to stay within themselves.  Dallas is conservative, like Pete Kaiser and Dee Jonrowe, but John Baker could take a chance.  At least, I can always see that he has a plan and sticks with it.”

On Jeff King, the 4x champ, who is now in a process of re-inventing himself after “retiring” for a year:  “He won the Kusko (300 miles), and everyone says that’s a nice dog team.   King, over time, has proven that he can jockey a dog team.  King just makes sure that he locks onto the front of the pack, has a team trained well enough to adapt to conditions, and then attacks.  There’s brilliance in his approach, but it takes a special musher to race that way.”

I pointed out that Dallas Seavey, with his athletic approach, owns the checkpoints.  Doug responded, “It’s not everything, but the race favors the tough checkpoint mushers.   Matt Hayashida (Iditarod veteran) was training on the same trail on the Denali as Dallas.  They decided to do a 150 miler.  When they got back to the trucks, Dallas told Matt, “My dogs seem like they still have some energy, so I think I’ll do it again.”  Dallas took a nap in the truck and made another 150 mile round with the team.  Most guys would be exhausted and want to get back home, so you have to admire Dallas.  The dogs pick up on his normal, and that’s why the team is bulletproof.”

The search for the true fan continues—-next on line,  Dick Mackey, an Iditarod champ at the top of the Mackey Dynasty. 

Get prepared for Iditarod 2013 and check out the Insider for the gps tracker, video and race commentary.