Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Early Race Strategies
Most mushers don’t like to run during the “heat of the day”, typically between 1 or 2 PM and 5 or 6 PM. Even if it is cold out, this is a low period in the dogs’ biorhythms and running during those hours, they are slower and it seems to take more out of them. There is another low point for both mushers and dogs, in the wee small hours of the morning around 4 AM or so. That is where the “getting on a good run / rest cycle” comes from. So the 2PM re-start puts the early bib numbers out when they least want to run. Some mushers will enter after the first day to avoid that, but most have another issue in mind.
The trail from Skwentna to Rainy Pass typically doesn’t exist until Iditarod puts it in for the race (Iron Dog goes through Shell Lake, not One Stone). Finger Lake is deep snow country, with 15 feet of snow on the ground being common. If there isn’t continuous traffic on the trail, the trail breakers can only pack the top of the snow pack. As the race comes by the trail breaks up and later teams have slower / harder pulling. You can see who really worries about this by watching to see who the first 10 mushers into Finger Lake are. By the time the back of the pack gets there (yours truly), there can be trenches on the corners and downhill parts (anywhere mushers ahead used their brake to slow down) that are a couple of feet deep. In 2009 the trench on the steps was deeper than I am tall. Of course the new mining activity in the area and going around the steps this year could change that.
Most competitive mushers will go to Rohn in three runs. Some mushers like to run to Yentna Station (or just past), then to Finger Lake, and then a long run from Finger to Rohn. But the favorite among competitive mushers is to run from Willow to Skwentna, about 70 miles, (or just before or past), rest there, and move quickly through Finger Lake to Finnbear (Helicopter) Lake (about ½ way between Finger Lake and Rainy Pass Lodge – about 55 miles). From there it is an easy run to Rohn, about 50 miles. Sebastian likes to hold to his run/rest cycle and will camp past Rohn, but most people stop there (more on Rohn in a bit).
There are advantage and disadvantages to camping Vs staying in the checkpoint. If you are camping you will need to melt snow for water for the dogs (about 25 min) and fix your own meal. Yentna Station has a hole in the river for water (much faster than melting snow – just heat it) and a spaghetti feed in the checkpoint for the mushers. Skwentna has hot water and hot potluck meals with a warm place to sleep. Finger Lake has a hole in the lake for water and a gourmet meal (black bean burritos?) for the mushers. Finnbear Lake has a hospitality stop with a warm cabin to sleep in, stew, and hot water for the dogs.
But early in the race the checkpoints are crowded (everyone is still packed together) and that compromises the quality of the rest of the musher and dogs and exposes both to more colds and viruses. The odd distances between checkpoints throws off the run / rest cycle that you are typing to establish. There is always something to think about. Watching who stops where will tell you how they rank these priorities.
Rohn is only a small cabin, but it is nestled in big trees that effectively shelter it and break the wind (which typically blows strongly up or down the canyon). It has great tasting water from a shallow part of the river against the bank that never freezes, but that is a ¼ mile walk each way. Most mushers stop here to regroup before tackling the Bison Tunnels (not tunnels so much anymore, but frequently blown clear of snow), the new burn area and the old Farewell Burn. Then it is off to Nikolai with the first running water you have seen since leaving home, clothes dryers for your gear, hot water for your dogs, free food for the mushers, a quiet place to sleep in the school gym, and internet access. An almost unresistible combination.
For mushers who don’t want to make the long run to Nikolai without a break, about ½ way there is Bison Camp – a guided hunting camp and the last sheltered area from the wind. It is open to all with wood for the stoves. About 15 miles from there is Sullivan Creek, another favorite because the creek never freezes (there is a bridge over it for the trail and a bucket on a rope to get water). Finally there is Martin’s favorite, a fish camp about 15 miles from Nikolai that sets you up nicely for a run to a 24 in McGrath.
Of course all the mushers are positioning themselves for their 24 at this point, typically in McGrath (great support, stores and repairs if needed, hot water for the dogs), Takotna (great food, hot water for the dogs), or for some, Ophir (just a cabin, with a warm tent to sleep in, but typically very quiet). Swingley used to like to go to the halfway point to take his 24 to avoid the crowds, but recently most competitive mushers have been nervous about the trail which typically doesn’t exist until Iditarod puts it in and there are no reports about quality, and have not pushed through to there to 24.
Watch your favorite mushers and maybe this will help explain why they stopped where they did.
Keep ‘em Northbound