RAce News roundup 8AM, Saturday, from Anvik

7AM news update Martin on trail to Kaltag in Lead

Sub-Plot  Zirkle chipping away at lead, Berkowitz fastest on trail with 16

Weather conditions continue to appear DETERIORATED.  It is now slightly snowing here in Anvik, but arriving musher Wade Mars tells us it was raining when he left Shageluk, a testament to the very localized weather cells hanging on the Yukon.

For the last hour and a half I have been trying to call Kaltag, Eagle island, or Grayling COMMS to get the inside scoop, but have been extremely FRUSTRATED.

Apparently the weather that has grounded airplanes for the last two days has created turmoil in the very remote Eagle Island checkpoint and in Kaltag.   The Iditarod airforce is basically grounded In Unalakleet waiting to move infrastructure and personnel to Eagle and kaltag checkpoints.  This is a good anecdote to demonstrate the logistical miracle that accompanies Iditarod.  Presently, part of our insider crew is stuck in Anvik waiting for weather that lets the planes start going to work.

 The only communication with Eagle Island is one Satellite Phone assigned to a race official and I have been hammering the number on my phone trying to get a rise.  AT the moment, I have no idea if it is above freezing and therefore the trail is still slush, or if temps have dropped below freezing.  Here in
anvik the morning temperature is 18F, freezing the slush into an uncompromising concrete hard mess.  Every groove in the snow by a passing snowmachine, for example, is now immortalized in a frozen hard rut.

Big Question, what are the conditions for Martin Buser , who is now leading the pack, after a 5 hour rest in Eagle Island, to the next checkpoint at kaltag?  AT the moment, I am not sure.  Very frustrating.

What we do Know

Bruce Lee and I have been scrutinizing the tracker.  Clearly, the following pack has coalesced together in a knot just out of Eagle Island checkpoint about 19 miles behind Martin Buser like a pack of hounds taking cues from the others.  In this pack we can see jake Berkowitz, who is incredibly still driving a complement of 16 dogs and posting a time from Grayling to Eagle of seven hours.  Martin Buser, our leader, posted a time of 9 hours.  So, do the math.   Jake is nibbling away at the lead of Martin. WE think that Jake may be 4 hours behind Buser by the time the pack arrives in kaltag this afternoon.

Ali Zirkle is running second behind Martin, and is just slightly slower than Berdowitz, but definitely one of the fastest on the trail.  As anyone can do on the Iditarod tracker, we can see she is 19 miles behind Martin and probably gaining. Just for the fun of it, I took another snapshot, at 730AM and will take another later today.  Look what was revealed.

Buser, in the lead             mile 587

Zirkle                                     570

Mitch Seavey                     567

Burmeister                         564

I have neglected a few competitors like Jessie Royer because she hasn’t taken her 8 hour mandatory.  But we can see that in the time I started making phone calls this morning, Aliz Zirkle has gained several miles on Buser.  Of course, changing trail conditions could account for these differences, but in general we suspect that the very difficult job of leading a race—-breaking trail ahead of the pack—is a slight drag on Buser’s team.

Joar is still in the hunt, but others have moved ahead of him.

Summary:  Count Buser as leader, with closers Zirkle, Mitch Seavey, Aaron Burmeister, and Jake Berkowitz, a major player.  Berkowitz receives special interest because he is still driving 16 dogs and appears to be the fastest on the trail.

Right to the nitty gritty, the downside for Berkowitz is his size.  Jake is a big guy and dwarfs Seavey and Burmeister.  The upside is his meticulous care of his dogs, his youth and exuberance, and his experience.  He’s already run the Yukon Quest this year and is totally hardened to the trail.   So, watch Jake—he’s no fluke.   Standing in his way to the front is Aliy Zirkle whose team has also been posting fast times.

Final Thoughts

Mushers continue to spill into Anvik, reaching a trail landmark by reaching the Yukon.  Fortunately, the rain drenched snow has frozen in place and been covered by a slight dusting of snow.   I went outside and walked around trying to visualize what mushers are thinking as they boot their dogs.  If the snow had frozen into a crust it would be bootie shredder, but I am hoping a little snow has softened the edges on frozen snow crystals.   For sure, mushers will be putting on boots for each and every paw for each and every foot of trail—nobody can afford dings on the tires of the team.

Booties, incidentally, are available from commercial suppliers who literally make 100’s of thousands of booties.  Generally, they are made from a high denier (close woven) fabric, varying from supplier to supplier, in a small , medium, and large size, often color coded.  The booties are secured with a Velcro tie, which is placed around the dog’s wrist.  Over the years, the bootie makers have sophisticated measurements and sewing so that they are secured with a minimum of distraction to the dog.

Many dogs have run the entire winter, in training and racing, always wearing booties.  Can you imagine how many booties a kennel requires to train a team 3,000 miles in a winter.  This just shows you how much importance mushers attribute to absolutely flawless feet. Even a small spit, as one can imagine thinking of blisters,  can compromise performance.   No feet, no run.

As temperatures rose to above freezing, I overheard mushers talking about booties.  “I like the way they fit, but they stitched an edge on the top cuff and the threads are holding ice crystals, so I like the other ones (another producer) because they cut the cuff with one of those edger scissors.”  Even the slightest difference in stitching, the exact run of cloth (some mushers are dismayed when the booties are a slightly different run of cloth and disintegrate in just a few miles while others may last for a hundred miles), and the critical measurements of the boot are noticed by the mushers.  Making booties is a tough business.  They cost about a dollar a boot.  Mushers spend thousand on boots.