Hoopla ends, and race to Nome begins
Published: March 7th, 2010 11:36 PM
Last Modified: March 8th, 2010 08:33 AM
On a gorgeous, sunny day in front of a big fur-clad crowd, Iditarod mushers headed off down the trail Sunday on their 1,000-mile journey to Nome.
They will battle weather, trail conditions and competitors. With enough stamina, smarts, preparation and luck, they'll make it to the finish line in good time.
Veteran musher Linwood Fiedler of Willow was the first out at 2 p.m., heading across frozen Willow Lake to the cheers of supporters and neighbors celebrating the hometown contender.
For the next 2 1/2 hours, teams left every two minutes, the order determined by a random drawing last week. Last out: Judy Currier of Fairbanks, running in her fifth Iditarod.
The 71 mushers are competing this year for a $561,000 purse, down roughly $52,000 from last year. It includes $50,000 to first-place.
A few inches of fresh snow overnight softened the packed trail for the first stretch but racers have a long journey ahead.
Trail crews reported windy sections, and Iron Dog riders who rode the route two weeks ago said some sections, including the Farewell Burn, on the other side of the Alaska Range about 200 miles from Willow, were devoid of snow.
Zack Steer, owner of Sheep Mountain Lodge, is racing his sixth Iditarod after having a very competitive fourth-place finish in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest this year. He said he's not concerned about the Burn or trail conditions in general.
"Snow is a luxury for dog mushing," Steer said.
Steer, a self-proclaimed competitive recreational musher whose best Iditarod finish was third place in 2008, said he's racing with the most experienced dog team he's ever had. Half were on the Quest trail with him last month. The other half are Iditarod veterans.
They're experienced, but Steer said he's not sure they're the fastest team he's ever raced.
"It's not always the fastest team that wins the race," he said, adding that the team that makes the fewest mistakes and has the most luck often comes out on top.'WE'LL DEAL WITH IT'
Trail conditions got a collective shrug from several other top-10 finishers.
"I have seen it pretty awful-looking before. We'll deal with it," said Sebastian Schnuelle, last year's second-place finisher.
"I don't want it to be easy. It (the difficult parts of the trail) separates people," he said.
Schnuelle said he hopes to wrap up his Iditarod career with a win. The German racer who now hails from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, has sold most of the dogs in his lot and says he plans to get back into sailing after finishing this year's race.
In the half hour before the race, Schnuelle squatted beside his sled and poured powdered vitamin additive into bottles of water to keep him hydrated on the trail. Asked if the vitamins were his secret weapon, Schnuelle said they aren't -- caffeine is.
His sled bag loaded and dogs getting a few last minutes of rest in their boxes, four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser reclined on the padded seat of his sled and joked with friends and well-wishers.
Buser said he hopes to make a new race record this year. The Big Lake resident holds the record for fastest Iditarod finish, in eight days, 22 hours and 46 minutes. He said he's going into this race with a "renewed attitude." He's gone back to old training habits, he said, abandoning training tips he had adapted from other mushers.
Just down from Buser's corner of the musher preparation area, fans outside the musher pit were shouting "We love you Lance!" and clamoring to get their photo taken with the Iditarod's biggest star these days. Lance Mackey entertained an Asian media crew, signed arm bands, jackets and backpacks for fans and posed for dozens of photos.
It's a big shift from four years ago, when many Iditarod fans didn't even know his name, he said.
Mackey said his fans identify with his story, overcoming throat cancer and coming back stronger than ever to win the brutal race, not once but three times in a row, and in the process becoming the first musher ever to win both the Yukon Quest and Iditarod in the same year.
"I have a fan club like no other, and that makes it real easy for me to go around and sign things and take pictures with people," he said.
"MIND OVER MATTER"
Mackey might have a rival for the most heart-stirring story on the trail this year. Musher Pat Moon, 33, of Chicago, Ill., is taking a break from chemotherapy treatments to live out his longtime dream of racing in the Iditarod.
Moon has non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a blood cancer, and also ulcerative colitis, which causes inflammation of the colon. His wife, Melanie Moon, said she struggled with her husband's decision to run the race.
"I want him to get better. But he's very much a mind-over-matter guy, and this has helped him stay strong," she said.
After riding in Steve Madsen's sled as an Iditarider in 2006, Moon said his dog addiction was cemented. He trained with Iditarod veteran Ed Stielstra, who runs Nature's Kennel in McMillan, Mich., with his wife, Tasha. Moon trained with the Stielstras two years, staying at a cabin there between October and April while his wife taught in an elementary school outside Chicago.
Moon said he's trained hard this winter despite his diagnosis and believes he'll get more sleep on the Iditarod trail than he did the last few months. He hopes to finish well but he envisions this as a 12-day vacation, not a blazing race to the finish line.
Finishing the Iditarod is a precursor to the larger battle he's facing.
"I'm a little upset about getting to Nome, because it'll be over," he said. "The important thing is, we're going to do this, and then we're going to beat cancer."
Notes from the restart
Mushing troopers: Alaska State Troopers Thomas Akelkok and Terrance Shanigan patrolled trails around Willow on a snowmachine and dogsled for about three hours Sunday morning. Shanigan and Akelkok are part of an effort by Troopers to improve relations between Troopers and rural Alaska communities. Akelkok, whose family has built dog sleds for decades, built two wooden sleds with his sons for display and patrol use and Shanigan logged more than 250 hours training with dogs from Lance Best's Barking Lot Kennel in Willow.
Shanigan said more than 2,500 Iditarod fans stopped by their truck to ask questions about the team and praise their efforts. Out on the trail that morning, he spoke to snowmachiners and race watchers and asked them not to crowd the trail, and with tailgaters to remind them to douse their bonfires and not to drink and use a snowmachine.
Kibble contributions: Michigan residents Lee and Claudia Nowak were up from Traverse City, Mich., to watch their seventh Iditarod. They are avid mushing supporters. Lee Nowak said they're members of two mushing organizations, although they don't have any sled dogs.
Claudia Nowak in 2009 started a new option for race fans to support mushers. The program, called BARK, or "Buy a Round of Kibble" allows supporters to buy kibble for participating mushers. It's organized through www.sleddogcentral.com. Participating mushers make note of the brand of kibble they use, their supplier, and the per-bag cost, and put a link on their Web site. Supporters can click the BARK button and pay for as many bags as they like, usually at a cost of about $40 a bag.
Nowak said about 65 mushers from North America and two foreign countries are currently participating in the program.