Iditarod Update #1: Get Ready,Set,Go!

Ken and I are writing this update together as we drive up to Willow for the re-start.  This will be Ken's sixteenth Iditarod Race, and he is REALLY looking forward to getting this show on the road.  After reflecting on this a bit, Ken told me there are two reasons for this.  First, he feels very confident about his dog team and the condition they are in.  Second, this year it has been incredibly difficult to even get to the starting line.  Throughout the season, Ken has had to deal with a number of hurdles and setbacks, and it seems like during the past few weeks the craziness has amped up an additional notch.  We have had 7 wonderful and very professional Norwegians staying with us, representing 4 teams of iditarod and Quest mushers along with their 50 dogs.  It's been great having them around, but right when we needed electric power the most to cut meat, access the internet, have lights and change batteries, our power system (we live off the electric grid) chose to go on the fritz.  Our diesel first started having issues when Ken was on the Kusko race in January, but luckily we had good wind power at the time.  It was mainly an issue because everyone wanted to cut meat with the meat saw for food drops, which requires 3 phase power that only the generator can supply.  Ultimately, to make a long story short, we cuycled through 4 generators in about 2 weeks and Ken eventually had to tear apart and rebuild our main Northern Lights generator.   All in all, it cost him quite a bit of precious time in a key moment, and left everyone in the dark (literally) for a few nights.  On top of allthis, we've had a handler transition as we said goodbye to Craig and welcomed Tavina, and a Parvovirus scare that resulted in all of Ken's dogs having to test negative 2 days before the race or he would not be allowed to race (fortunately, they did).  It also probably hasn't helped that I've been quite busy with work and have been traveling a lot.

Ken has made quite a few changes this year, both in his training regime and gear.  To start with, Ken built a new sled from the ground up.  Earlier this fall, he bought several runner forms and random odds and ends from a local sled master carpenter, Ray Mackler, who had just turned 94.  Ray actually built my first Yukon Quest sled almost 20 years ago.  After modifying the forms a bit, Ken built a set of laminated wood runners out of white ash with fiberglass reinforcement.  He used a high quality marine-grade epoxy to laminate the layers together to create a flexible but very tough and cambered runner base that hugs the trail very nicely.  The bed is made out of Kevlar fabric, and the sled is engineered such that there are no hard triangles anywhere that would create stiff, hard joints which might lend themselves to cracking under stress.  I had the chance to drive his sled yesterday during the cerimonial start, and I was impressed with how steerable and flexible it was.

Ken also ditched his on-the-go cooker which he spent a lot of time last year perfecting, because it was too heavy and cumbersome and not necessay since he is not planning a non-stop running strategy.  He is using the same trailer sled that he built last year, at least for the first stage of the race.  He can haul 4 dogs at a time in this sled, which will allow him to keep dogs rested in the early part where is doesn't need all the power he has.  He originally hoped to rebuild this sled to make it a bit smaller and lower profile, but he ran out of time before the race.  As a result, he probably has the longest sled train - so long that Ray Redinton joked that Ken needed a CDL to drive it!  With what is supposed to be a hard and fast trail, Ken is planning to rotate 4 dogs in and out of his trailer at least until hitting the hilly country outside of Skwentna.  After this, he will play it by ear according to trail conditions, and how the team is handling the extra weight.

Also, Ken finally fully committed to the Seavey gnagline and harness system this year, which he feels has afforded him the extra power he needs for hauling dogs (he has dabbled with versions of it in the past).   This is a modified harness system patterned after an age-old concept typically used in draft horses, which involves using a spreader bar to keep weight off the hips and all of the tension in a straight line.  He is also using toggles instead of snaps, and bungee-filled necklines to give the dogs extra lateral mobility.

In terms of strategy, Ken told me he "wants to focus on racing with his heart instead of his head, and see where the chips fall".  In the past, he feels he has tried to overthink his strategy and be too regimented in his run/rest pattern.  The problem is that the race is so complex with so many variables at play, thinking things out too far doesn't really work well since everything is constantly in flux.  He is excited about the field being so competitive, and he is eager to see how he and his team stack up against such stiff competition.   Ken feels like he is flying under the radar this year since no one has really picked him for a top finish or is paying all that much attention to him; so he doesn't feel like he is under a lot of pressure to prove himself, either to himself nor anyone else.

That's all for now; I will talk a bit about his strategy in the next update, but given his late start time and plan to be a bit conservative early in the race, I don't expect to see him pushing the leaders too soon.  He took his first rest right on schedule, 5 hours out of the gate and is planning his second stop halfway between Skwentna and Rainy Pass.  But more on that later - suffice it to say Ken is confident and ready and his team looks exactly the same.

More later, Gwen