Sunday, January 20, 2008

K-300 Update

Very high resolution map (1.3 MB). Click on it for more readable version.

Good morning, K-300 fans! It has been a long and windy night, and the dogs are starting to get tired. The mushers are feeling the sleep deprivation that goes with distance racing. We are now 39 hours into this race, and the frontrunners are probably a good ten hours away from home. Even with a late energy burst, it will likely be 6 pm before the leaders hit No Man’s Land.

Some interesting developments overnight. Our young hometown girl, Jessica Klejka, scratched in Aniak on the outbound course. She had been falling further and further behind, and I wondered aloud to Dutch before we went to bed after midnight whether she might end up scratching in Aniak. I know she did a huge amount of training for this race, so I doubt it is due to poorly prepared dogs. The wind and warm weather may be a factor, or it may be the dogs’ health.

Some sled dogs tend to get stress diarrhea during longer races and can quickly become dehydrated. If they are also shy drinkers, meaning they don’t gobble up all liquids immediately, they will have to be dropped from the team. This was apparently not Jessica’s problem, either, as she was one of the few mushers to make it all the way to Aniak with all 14 dogs still on the gangline.

She had a very good pace in the early part of the race, over 10 miles per hour. As the team covered the miles, they just slowed down and down and down. By the time she reached Aniak, they were traveling just over 3 miles per hour. Again, maybe it was the wind, which has been fierce since yesterday afternoon. We will have to wait until the Musher’s Banquet tomorrow evening to get the story.

Also on the scratch list is Jackie Larson, a very experienced sprint musher from Napaskiak. He was the winner of last year’s Bogus Creek 150, as well as numerous sprint races this season. The Larsons are a well-respected mushing family who have produced many winning teams and mushers. The stats tell me nothing about why he might have scratched. He had 11 dogs in harness when he reached Aniak and was still traveling nearly 9 miles per hour. His team may have rebelled in the face of the wind.

Sled dogs will do that sometimes. Strong wind is mentally punishing to them; it takes a very tough dog, especially the leader, to keep going against the wind. Sometimes they simply lie down and refuse to get up, and no amount of yelling, screaming, pleading, or cajoling will make them. That’s the thing about dog mushing; you can’t make dogs pull. They do it because they want to, or they don’t do it.

Dee Dee Jonrowe had just such an experience on the Iditarod several years ago. The middle third of the race has a long stretch (several hundred miles) on the Yukon River, through an area widely known to be a wind tunnel. That year it was especially bad, and dogs and mushers were all taking a beating from the wind. At one point—I think the checkpoint at Eagle Island—Dee Dee’s entire team lay down and would not get up. There was a tearful moment caught on camera when Susan Butcher arrived at the checkpoint (as a news commentator, not a competitor) and Dee Dee clutched her, crying, and saying “Trotter won’t go!” Trotter was her leader. She had to scratch right there. When the dogs won’t go, you can’t make them.

Another interesting thing about this race is how tightly packed it has remained. Generally, over three hundred miles, the teams will spread out pretty much. Three or four teams will have a clear lead over the rest, with first one and then another being the actual leader. Then an hour or more behind will be the eight to ten teams that constitute the middle of the pack. And then a handful of stragglers, either inexperienced or having trouble, who are the back of the pack.

This year has been a little different: a huge front end, a small back end, and no middle. Right now, as of 9:30 am, less than 10 minutes separates the first five teams. Mitch Seavey is currently in lead, having arrived at Tuluksak, closely chased by Ramey Smith, John Baker, Jeff King, and Rohn Buser. Any of those five could cross the Finish Line first at this point. The next two, Ed Iten and Hugh Neff, are within an hour of them. All seven of these frontrunners passed through the last checkpoint with less than a half hour’s rest.

The next group of eight mushers, which at this point does constitute a middle of the pack (see? This race changes even in the time it takes me to write about it, especially the final 12 hours), has stayed at Kalskag inbound for a longer rest, which speaks of more tired dogs. They stopped for one to three hours, all except Dee Dee, who has now been there for over five hours.

Four mushers are now in the back of the pack, and are about five hours behind the middle group. The last two have yet to leave Aniak inbound, and could be considering scratching. Some years over a quarter of the field scratches; it’s that tough a race.

Meanwhile, the first two teams are in Tuluksak, where they have a mandatory four hour rest. Mitch Seavey has a 36 minute lead on Ramey Smith at this point, which doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll win, but makes it a strong possibility. If so, it would be Mitch’s second K-300 win. Mitch will be able to leave at 1:30, and it is at least five hours to Bethel from there if the dogs are traveling fast. Dutch and I will head for the river about 6:30 and hope to get some good photos.

And for those who are wondering, No Man’s Land is the last two miles of a race. For the entire race before that point, trail etiquette is quite rigid; when a team is overtaking the one in front, the faster musher calls “Trail!” and the slower musher must “give trail”: pull his team over to the side, stop, and allow the faster team to pass by. Depending on location, this can be tricky. Trails can be narrow, with little passing room. Dog teams can be quirky and unpredictable. A team passing closely may inspire a dog on the waiting team to reach out and take a snap at a passing leg or paw, or—worst case—an all-out dog fight can ensue. Many mushers, when giving trail, will plant their snow hook and run up to stand next to the leader to try to prevent any interaction with the passing team.

No Man’s Land at the end of the race, usually marked with a large sign so all the mushers know exactly where it starts, is where all etiquette ends. If a musher behind you is moving faster, he or she has to figure out a way to pull around you and pass without you stopping. It can make the home stretch a place of great excitement, and given how close this race has been all along, could give us some photo finishes. In a tight contest the winner, as in horse racing, is determined by the nose of the lead dog crossing the Finish Line.

Last minute update before posting (11:30 am AST): the first six teams are now in Tuluksak, with the seventh due any minute. That four-hour rest has to be looking good right now.



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