Iditarod Update # 2 - Across the Alaska Range

It looks like Ken is running exactly the race he has planned - as I write this, he is partway between Rainy Pass and Rohn just before the top of the Dalzell Gorge, stopped at what looks like the near side of a creek crossing with Kat Keith, Allen Moore and Mike Williams Jr., as well as a few other teams.  I imagine they will figure out a strategy to cross soon enough, but given that there are also teams comping on the far side, it might be one that is going to require getting a bit wet in splashing across to the other side.  (Pam Verfaille, one of our family friends from Valdez called after I wrote this post and shared a Facebook post passing on information from one of the Iditarod videographers, who said this was an open water creek called the Happy River, about knee deep and 30-40 feet across). 

Last night, the northern lights were absolutely spectacular here in Fairnbanks, and I am sure the mushers had quite a show out on the trail.  Tonight should be another cool, clear evening and I think the dogs will be relieved to have a reprieve from the heat of the day.

Here is a rundown of what Ken has been up to since the start:

1) He loaded 4 digs shortly out of the start in his trailer sled (youneed to leave with all 16 in harness, but he is still experimenting with giving dogs extra rest, switching them around after 2 1/2 hours).  From the start, he ran a total of 5 hours before stopping for 2 hours on the river, just past Yentna checkpoint.

2) He then ran another 5 hours to halfway between the checkpoints of Skwentna and Finger Lake, again hauling dogs and rotating them halfway through the run.  This run brought him to the vicinity of Shell Lake, where he camped for another 3 1/2 hours.

3) He ran from this point through Finger Lake, all the way to Rainy Pass, which was a atotal of about 5 1/2 hours.  Depending on the trail and how the dogs are handling the extra weight, he will drop his trailer sled at some point between Finger Lake and further down the trail in Nikolai.

4) He rested just under 4 hours at Rainy Pass, and is now headed to Rohn where he will likely not stop for long, instead electing to travel another 1 1/2 hours or so down the trail to the Tin Creek area.  Lance Mackey is camped in the location now.

As you can see, Ken is trying to keep his runs shorter than 6 hours to preserve his speed, but is also keeping his rests shorter than he has in the past.  This strategy seems to be positioning him nicely not too far from the leaders, and he still has a full team of 16 dogs in harness.

He plan from his next stop at Tin Creek is to run the approximately 6 hours to Nikolai without stopping, take a 4 hour rest there and then do his first long run through McGrath and Takotna, before taking his 24 hour layover in Ophir.  At least, that is his "A" plan - we will see what happens.

This is definitely an exciting time to be in mushing because there are so many different strategies, which we can clearly see starting to emerge.  For a good narrative describing some fo these, check out this article by former musher Jake Berkowitz: this era of free-for-all.

With all this innovation going on, it's impossible to make early predications because so much is still in motion, and how certain strategies play out depends on a wide range of factors - many of which are not under the control of any individual musher.  Nonetheless, some basic laws of doggie-dome still apply.  The primary law: dogs still need a minimum amount of rest. Period. Bionic dogs don't compete in this race, and resting at the right timems is a key ingredient to a successful strategy.  When and where this rest is best applied depends on the individual team, their makeup, and their training leading up to this race.  Ken's mantra (clearly not shared by all the mushers) is to rest early or suffer consequences later.  He believes there is plenty of time to cut rest later.  His early strategy is to run fast, run short, and rest short.  This is all obviously relative - he wants to stay within striking distance of the lead pack. but right now he is probably focusing most on his team and what they need to move as quickly as possible down the trail.  Where he is in the standing is not a significant concern for him at this point.

I quizzed Ken vefore the race on how his training plays into his race strategy this year, and how it compares to past years.  He told me that in the last few years, he feels he has geared down his dogs too low with too many long runs in training.  This year, his default speed is fast - 10mph (which we can see now with his average running speed of 9.3 mph according to his GPS tracker).  In the past, his default speed has been slower since he trained them to run longer, and thus slower.  This year he has a really good base on his team, but also has had lots of rest between training runs.  He has built up mileage very slowly, but has also tested his team - both in the 300 mile Kusko race, and a more recent 200 mile training run, which he completed in a total of four 6-hour segments with short rests in between.     

Overall, I think he is doing well and I suspect Ken is pleased with how his race is unfolding.  The next stretch will be interesting, as mushers begin to play some of their hidden cards- such as where they take their 24 hour layover, and how they set themselves up before and after this mandatory rest.  Once the teams pull over for this break, we will begin to have a better feel for their relative positions. With Ken's late starting time, he will have one of the shortest 24-hour layovers, as the start time differential is added to this rest.  In other words, Ken will be resting for just a few minutes over 24 hours, while the teams with lower numbers will have to rest 26 or more hours.  So Ken will probably gain a few positions once he completes this break.

That's all for tonight - I'll write another update sometime tomorrow.  Thanks for following Ken, and stay tuned!

Until tomorrow, Gwen