If there is one constant in sled dog racing, it’s that there are so many interdependent factors at work that it is almost meaningless to make any pre-race predictions.
That being said, I would like to offer up a few tidbits for people to postulate when making their own picks of who might be top dog when every thing is said and done.
This year, 83 mushers and their dog teams are signed up for the Iditarod, and among them are five from the Kenai Peninsula: Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof; Mitch Seavey and Dallas Seavey of Sterling; Tim Osmar of Ninilchik; and Bruce Linton, who recently moved to Kasilof.
While each year’s race presents its own set of challenges for the competitors, this year, frigid weather patterns and tough trail conditions appear to be two of the main obstacles to be overcome.
The cold, dry weather pattern that has persisted throughout much of the state for weeks, and appears to not be shifting any time soon, has kept the mercury in the minus 20 to minus 45 range in many of the villages and checkpoints mushers must pass through.
This same pattern has also made the race route marginal in many portions. According to a trail report posted on the Iditarod Web site on Wednesday, there is bare ground, ice and minimal patches of snow from the Alaska Range to the Yukon and over the portage to the Bering Sea Coast.
Expect these conditions to take their toll on mushers and teams. Dogs can get sore feet from running on a hard-packed trail instead of a soft cushion of snow, so there may be more dogs dropped, and at earlier points in the race, to ensure their safety and well-being.
There also should be no shortage of smashed-up sleds as mushers bump there way down the notorious Dalzell Gorge, skid across dirt and gravel in the Farewell Burn, and pass through numerous other sections that are more treacherous in snowless years.
A trail predicted to be hard and fast for most of the way will be less than ideal for local mushers. Unlike four-time champion Martin Buser who as he proved when he set the record for the fastest time in 2002 seems to thrive in conditions that allow his team to lope at blistering speeds, the peninsula mushers seemed to prefer a steadier pace with longer run times.
Of the locals in this year’s race, Gebhardt is probably best known for this strategy. Last year, in an unprecedented move, Gebhardt pushed to Galena nearly 700 miles into the race before taking his mandatory 24-hour rest.
Pundits speculated he had made a mistake not taking his 24 earlier and that his team could fizzle out on the final stretch to Nome.
He proved them wrong, though. Since he was racing like he trained, Gebhardt came off his 24 with a fresh team that spring-boarded him back to the front for a third-place finish.
Gebhardt seems to prevail in tough conditions, such as breaking trail through deep snow, where his huskies’ steady, raw power often prevails over otherwise faster teams.
Eventually, Gebhardt’s long runs may win him the race, particularly if he ever finds himself on the far side of a storm that prevents the competition from catching up. It may not be this year, though.
Gebhardt has shown his team is versatile, which is why in the 10 times he has run the Iditarod he has accumulated five top-10 finishes. He also is taking the same team as last year, with the exception of one or two dogs. Not only have they proven they can pull for more than 1,000 miles, but now, at a year older, they are even further into the prime of their lives.
Taking that into consideration, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the next time I saw Gebhardt, he was driving a new truck.
Mitch Seavey has also shown he has the skills to pay the bills. In the last 15 years, Seavey is the only non-multiple champion to have won the race. His victory in 2004 proved that Buser, Jeff King, Doug Swingley and Robert Sorlie can be beaten.
Like the bumper sticker that used to adorn his dog truck, Seavey prefers “Quietly Making Noise.” He often side-steps interviews, never letting the limelight interrupt his laser-like focus on the Iditarod, so you never know what his team has until he unleashes them on the trail.
His final standings in races earlier this season are no help either. While many spectators may not be aware, many Iditarod mushers use these 200- and 300-mile races in January as training and never actually set out to win them.
That was the case with Seavey in this year’s Tustumena 200. At each checkpoint, I saw Seavey only attend to his team and then himself, never once checking the leader board to learn his place in the standings. When he crossed the finish line in third place, he was genuinely surprised.
So, knowing that he placed third in a race as tough at the T-200 while just running steady, I would speculate that Seavey has got another seriously strong team for Iditarod this year. Even if he doesn’t win it, this 13-year veteran of the race won’t be far behind the person who does.
Dallas Seavey will likely not be racing for himself, but running a team of young pups that will one day go with his dad. He has been charged with this task once before, when he ran pups to a 51st place finish in his first and only other Iditarod back in 2005.
As Mitch has said on multiple occasions, he wouldn’t have the success he’s had if not for the cooperation of his close-knit clan.
Tim Osmar also returns to racing this year. Osmar ran the Iditarod last year, but since he served as visual interpreter for blind musher Racheal Scdoris, he wasn’t able to truly compete.
This hiatus may benefit Osmar this year, though, as last year’s run allowed him to take a young team and show them the race without pushing them. This year those dogs will be more experienced and confident, which could boost Osmar to the front of the pack.
Osmar hasn’t had a top-10 finish since 1997, but with 21 Iditarods under his belt, he is undeniably the most experienced of the peninsula mushers entered in this year’s race and a likely contender to finish toward the front.
Last, but not least, is Bruce Linton, who despite still being listed on the Iditarod Web site as being from Vermont, moved to Kasilof last year to train for Iditarod.
Since moving, Linton has participated in several races around the state, including the Sheep Mountain 150, Cooper Basin 300 and Don Bowers 300.
However, as many Iditarod veterans will attest to, nothing can prepare you for the Last Great Race. Since Linton’s a rookie, where he ends up in the final standings, or if he’ll make it to Nome at all, is anybody’s guess.
This column is the opinion of Clarion reporter Joseph Robertia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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