Until Next Season…

Aliy Zirkle's Dogs Howl

Aliy Zirkle’s team is ready to go outside the White Mountain checkpoint in 2013 Iditarod. Bill Roth/Anchorage Daily News

This post ends my coverage of the 2013 Iditarod. I’ll leave you with the above photo of Aliy Zirkle’s dog team breaking into howls as they prepare to leave the White Mountain checkpoint. Can you hear them? They’re howling, “So long!”

I’ll be back to cover next year’s Yukon Quest and Iditarod. Between now and then, I’ll occasionally post mushing-related musings here or link to articles elsewhere that I find interesting. Otherwise, this blog will go into semi-hibernation until next winter.

It was fun covering the Iditarod. I learned a lot, and I hope my coverage next year is even better as a result of what I’ve learned.

Here are my three takeaways from this year’s race.

Fundamentals still matter

Martin Buser’s unprecedented 177-mile nonstop run from Willow to Rohn certainly made this year’s race exciting, and it seemed to toss a snow hook into the tactics of some of the other mushers. But in the end, his bold plan failed. He was a mushing Swiss Napoleon whose past victories apparently weren’t enough, and the Yukon River was his Waterloo. The rainy weather, combined with fatigue and perhaps a bad batch of water in Iditarod, upset the best laid plans of musher and dogs.

The lead changed often during this year’s race as mushers reacted to Buser and the unusual weather–high temperatures, rain on the Yukon. But in the end, fundamentals came out on top. Mitch Seavey ran a highly disciplined race, and he didn’t let Buser’s pyrotechnics, or anything else, sway him. Even as other mushers jockeyed for the lead, he stuck to his plan, never cutting rest short, never giving chase.

It will be interesting to see if Buser tries his plan, or some form of it, again in the future. Had he won, it would have changed the way mushers approach the race going forward. The fact that he didn’t win may change things too. Although no other musher had before attempted such a lengthy run to start a race, getting a big lead early and trying to hold it has been tried several times in recent years, by Buser and other mushers. As Buser said after the race, “it’s fun to try new things.” But the fact that Buser took it as far as he did and still came up short, and Seavey, who didn’t lead until Unalakleet, went on to win may signal the death knell of the ambitious big lead strategy. As Dallas Seavey told the Alaska Dispatch, “Everyone’s coming from behind and crushing it. People are going to start reassessing how far out ahead they want to be.”

As ever, tortoise beats hare.

Age doesn’t matter

After Dallas Seavey became last year’s youngest Iditarod champion at the age of 25, leading a pack made up mostly of other young mushers, there was talk that a page may have turned in the history of the Last Great Race, that youth and athleticism would become the determining traits of Iditarod winners. This year’s race put that theory to rest, at least for now, with 53-year-old Mitch Seavey becoming the oldest Iditarod champion, 43-year-old Aliy Zirkle finishing a close second, and 57-year-old Jeff King rounding out third. Four of the top ten finishers this year were over 50. One of them, Sonny Lindner, is 63.

Experience still counts. Never count an old dog out.

Don’t measure dog teams, or mushers, by how they look coming into checkpoints

Although it may be a positive sign when a dog team lopes into a checkpoint with tails wagging, heads held high, looking like they could easily go another hundred miles, it’s not a determining factor in which team will win the race. Aaron Burmeister’s dog team looked fantastic coming into most checkpoints. At various times, so did Martin Buser’s and Aliy Zirkle’s. Mitch Seavey’s dogs, on the other hand, often looked tired.

But looking tired may only tell you what kind of run a team has just come off of, not the kind of rests they’re getting or what their condition is in the race as a whole. Seavey seemed to have his run/rest cycle down to a science this year, because his team was consistently fast between checkpoints. They never faded, perhaps because Seavey rarely cut rest short, even if it meant allowing other mushers to overtake him. He gave his dogs the rest he felt they needed.

The same holds true for mushers. Who would have guessed when Cindy Abbott came into Takotna checkpoint that she had suffered a broken pelvis 300 miles earlier and would eventually have to be rescued outside of Kaltag? Aliy Zirkle, on the other hand, looked exhausted by mid-race. She probably was. But she went on to finish second and came close to capturing her first championship.

It’s tempting as you’re watching the Iditarod to look for that magic something that will tell you who will win. Who has the best leader? The best strategy? Which team appears freshest. Who is fastest between checkpoints? Who has the highest average speed? Who is taking the most or least amount of rest?

But a confluence of factors come into play in an endurance race. Being an experienced musher with a strong dog team, a good leader, and a smart strategy certainly helps. But luck also plays a part. Mistakes are made, even by the best. No strategy is perfect, and any strategy has to be flexible enough to deal with the vagaries of weather, dogs, fatigue, and whatever else the Last Great Race has to throw at mushers.

With this in mind, I’ll be back next year to make my best guesses. I’ll bring a dart board, a Ouija board, and a crystal ball.

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