The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has plenty of variables on its own.
After a winter lacking both snow and typically cold weather, those question marks multiply.
Even the most seasoned mushers have been scrambling for both substantial training time and a good sense of what to expect in this year's race, which begins with the traditional ceremonial start in Anchorage on Saturday.
Kasilof's Jon Little is no different. The 37-year-old reporter, a two-year veteran of the 1,150-mile wilderness marathon from Anchorage to Nome, faced all the challenges his fellow competitors did this winter. He also now faces the challenge of tackling the trip to Nome without some of his best veteran dogs, including his "old beloved leader," 7-year-old Molson, who is sidelined with a shoulder injury.
"I've got a bunch of 3- and 4-year-olds that I'm hoping will step up," Little said. "But will they? That's the question."
Fellow Kasilof musher Paul Gebhardt, who finished second in last year's Iditarod and shares the trails of the Caribou Hills with Little while training, thinks he knows the answer.
"Jon's got a really nice team, and they're really fast," he said. "His dog team is improving and his mushing skills are improving.
"I look for him to move up and maybe pop into the top 20."
Little finished 23rd last year in 10 days, seven hours and 44 minutes -- a time that would have given him a fourth-place finish in the 1999 race. Still, he says he is more concerned with just improving his time, rather than worrying about where he's at in the standings.
"One of the small goals is to run a little faster," he said. "But I stay away from trying to shoot for a certain spot (in the standings). It can distract you from your race."
Little said the experience of his two previous runs to Nome leave him better equipped to attain his race goals this year.
"I think I've got a slightly smarter game plan," he said, singling out a more predictable run-rest schedule as one factor he can improve on this year.
"I didn't do that well at it last year. I want to spend more time on the trail and less time in the checkpoints."
The veteran Gebhardt agreed there is no substitute for experience on the Iditarod Trail.
"(Jon) is traveling over a trail that he's traveled before. And that will help him a lot," Gebhardt said. "He seems real calm."
Little said that's because he is calm -- at least relative to his previous races.
"It's less intimidating, even the coast, which has always intimidated me," he said of the trail, which crosses the Alaska Range before heading west for the often stormy and wind-blown Bering Sea coast run to Nome.
Experience notwithstanding, he said he harbors no illusions about competing with the likes of Gebhardt, two-time reigning champion Doug Swingley of Montana, or three-time winner Jeff King of Denali Park, who Little said is the man to beat this year.
Instead, he will do his best and just enjoy the trip.
"There's a lot of things that are fun. Just being on the trail is fun," he said. "And seeing the mushers again. They're really nice people. It's just fun racing.
"I'm in a whole different state of mind when I'm racing."
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