2008 IDITAROD PREVIEW?

Annually, I have been asked by Mushing Magazine’s editor to write an authoritative preview of the coming year’s Iditarod. To date, I have been pathetically incapable of predicting an Iditarod winner. Fortunately, previous articles contained qualifiers similar to this year’s caveat­- “nothing in this article, in all probability, will have anything to do with the reality of who will win Iditarod 2008.”However, for mental exercise, and to familiarize ourselves with the main players, let us recall that the 2007 Iditarod was advertised as the battle of the legendary multiple Iditarod winners. Jeff King, Martin Buser, Doug Swingley, and Robert Sorlie were all assembled at the start line, and many race followers felt convinced that one of these four past champs was going to win the Iditarod. As it turned out, Lance Mackey, Paul Gebhardt, and Zach Steer challenged the champs and arrived in Nome to capture the top three finishes. The ascendancy of these three challengers over the favored four champions, in all fairness, can be regarded as a classic sports upset.The question remains for mushers competing in this year’s 2008 Iditarod to answer: “What did Mackey, Gebhardt, and Steer do to get to the front in 2007 and what can we learn from them?”I followed the 2007 Iditarod front runners by helicopter as part of a media crew from start to finish, and I was able to interview the front runners as they moved up the trail. Honestly, it was one of the best races I had ever watched. Calculating strategies, diligent dog care, and subtle changes in momentum characterized the races of the front runners. Jeff King and Martin Buser, the veteran four-time champs, seemed to dominate the race with superior speed until Kaltag, about mile 770 on an 1131 mile course. Meanwhile, Mackey and Gebhardt were gradually reeling in the two champs. At Iditarod, mile 534, Mackey and Gebhardt were about six hours behind Buser and King. At the same time, they seemed confident that they could regain lost time by following the race leaders, noting their rest times in checkpoints, and simply abbreviating their own rest times. When I talked to the always optimistic Paul Gebhardt in Iditarod, he told me that his plan, as well as Lance’s plan, was to ask the dogs to rest about 30 minutes less than Buser and King at each checkpoint. Over the next couple of days, Gebhardt proposed that they would recover lost time and close the gap on Buser and King.This is a ridiculously simple strategy for gaining lost time. However, it operates on one important theory–that your dogs are stronger than the competition’s dogs. As it turns out, Lance Mackey and Paul Gebhardt did gradually erase the lead of King and Buser with a steady traveling speed and rests abbreviated by a half hour. Finally, in Unalakleet, mile 862, Lance assumed the lead of the race with his more powerful team.Therefore, a theory proposed by Robert Sorlie in 2003 and 2005 (when he won the Iditarod) seems to be true. If you can relax the dogs and coach them to travel at moderate speeds, teach them to calmly rest in checkpoints, it seems that traveling slower in the beginning of the race pays off in the last half of the race. Ultimately, with the dogs moving at an easy, comfortable pace, it appears to be physiologically easier to travel more slowly while still resting less in checkpoints. Although the team may not be the fastest on the trail, the end result is a winning effort.In other words, it is at first counterintuitive because the human musher’s mind must be convinced that “losing in the first half of the race” results in a “win in the last half of the race.” For many mushers, a more satisfying strategy is to travel fast–cover more ground in a shorter period of time–and let the dogs rest longer in checkpoints. What Mackey and Gebhardt did was to purposely travel slower relative to Buser and King, and rest more or less the same amount of time as the competition at checkpoints in the first half of the race. Consequently, they lost six hours. In the last half of the race, they gained six hours, stole the lead, and finished 1st and 2nd.Psychologically, this is a huge undertaking by a musher like Lance. It is very difficult to resist the temptation to just let the dogs go and stay with the front-runners. In a trail interview, I had an interesting conversation with Lance. Anybody who knows Lance Mackey, including Lance Mackey, acknowledges that he is a one-of-a-kind, wild, live-wire, active personality. A first impression would have you call him an impulsive, spontaneous person and an instinctive, off the wall decision maker. His enthusiasm and optimism about life is marvelously unique.As part of my question, I pointed out that it seemed his strategy was very calculating but at the same time his personality didn’t match his style of mushing. In his reply he freely admitted that it was hard to reconcile his exuberant personality with his very conservative and error-free strategy. But he had a good explanation. When it comes to his sled dogs, his mental attitude is strictly practical.To summarize, what every musher in the 2007 Iditarod should have learned from Lance Mackey is that patience in the first half of the race pays off dramatically in the last half of the race.Second, Lance has the entire Iditarod field reconsidering the definition of physiological efficiency and pondering the significance of his 2007 season. I can claim some kind of expertise in this department because I was the first to win both the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest–but in different years. I personally would never have thought a same year, double win possible, given the high level of competition in both races.On the other hand, Lance won the 2007 Yukon Quest and came back two weeks later with essentially the same team of 13 Yukon Quest dogs to start and then win the 2007 Iditarod. This accomplishment is monumental–nearly unbelievable. Lance and his team won two of the most prestigious long distance races in the same year and he did it with convincing performances. To date, in my opinion, Lance’s 2007 victories represent the greatest accomplishment in the history of long distance sled dog racing.My neighbor Bruce Lee, 1998 Yukon Quest champion, holds the opinion that Mackey has witnessed a physiological event with his dog team known only to a few. Other mushers, like adventurer and middle of the pack competitor Bob Holder, and Yukon Quest Champions like the iconic Charlie Boulding, Hans Gatt, and Timmy Osmar, to name a few, have completed both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod in the same year and noticed a kind of “physiological transfer” in their dogs. This happens when the dogs become so trail-hardened that they seemed to go to another level of trail-conditioned durability. Lance’s performance raises another interesting question: are sled dogs capable of going to another level of physiological efficiency?We followed Lance by helicopter as he came across the freshwater ice of the Unalakleet River and trotted into Unalakleet village as the leader of the 2007 race. He had set a relentless schedule, cutting rest by a half hour in each checkpoint after his mandatory 24 hour rest in Iditarod. He then captured the lead from Martin Buser and Jeff King.The Kaltag to Unalakleet trail is a demanding 90 mile run. At Unalakleet, Lance bedded his dogs on straw on the ice while the wind off of the Bering Sea hammered the coast. I assumed he would rest for at least six hours.Instead, Lance took a short nap in the Unalakleet checkpoint, snacked and bootied the dogs, and departed after a brief 4 hour 59 minute interlude in Unalakleet. Larry, his leader, and the team rose from their beds and uneventfully trotted out of Unalakleet at 9PM in the evening. I assumed he would rest at least four hours in the next checkpoint at Shaktoolik–40 miles away.Instead, Lance made a brief five minute appearance in Shaktoolik and continued in the early morning darkness across sea ice for another 60 mile run to Koyuk. After 12 hours of night mushing, he arrived in Koyuk at 9AM. In total, the dogs ran 100 miles in 12 hours. I assumed Lance would rest in Koyuk for at least five hours.Instead, in the distance, Lance could see the team of Paul Gebhardt advancing on the ice that approaches Koyuk. After a brief three hour rest, Lance once again gave an almost inaudible command and the dogs got off of their beds, shook themselves, and trotted back onto the sea ice. When Gebhardt arrived in Koyuk he found only vapors of Lance Mackey. Mackey was now the Ghost in the Lead, an apparition that none of the competitors could see. From the helicopter we were able to capture the images of Gebhardt arriving and Lance Mackey making a stealthy exit out of Koyuk.The Incredible Lance Mackey and team then traveled another 95 miles to Elim (staying only 6 minutes) and then to White Mountain, while still maintaining good traveling speeds. In another interview at the finish I asked Lance if he was ever worried. He told me flatly that he was never worried about the durability of the dogs, and he knew that the team could do it.What does all this mean for a musher training for Iditarod 2008? We may have a new paradigm for the race, and the two mushers that seem to know a lot about it are Lance Mackey and Paul Gebhardt.For this reason, I rank these two as the clear favorites for 2008. Anyone that intends to beat Mackey and Gebhardt will have had to carefully consider the advantages and disadvantages of their deliberate strategy.As a bonus, I was able to contact Lance Mackey by phone on December 3, 2007 to discuss the 2008 race and gain further insight into the human whirlwind known as Lance Mackey. I repeatedly called his cell phone number—at least a dozen times—for several days and heard this greeting, “This is Lance, you missed me, call me later.” Reflecting back on the 2007 season, Lance noted that the Yukon Quest victory was just one of those perfect races and he realized that 13 of his Quest dogs were physically ready to run Iditarod. Talking specifically about the pivotal Iditarod run of the team from Koyuk to Elim (mile 941 to 989) Lance said that the dogs ran in the heat of the day, but that they did not lose any significant team speed. This was a demonstration that the dogs had become exquisitely conditioned.Although it seems as though Lance embarks on long marches, he told me that he stops the team repeatedly for short breaks and snacks. For example, he stopped for at least a minute about fifteen times between Koyuk and Elim. He never trains the dogs for long runs, theorizing that long continuous runs will lower team speed. Instead, all distance work is in stages. He assured me that this is the case, even if it appears to the neighbors and bystanders that he is training 80 to 100 miles. Asked about duplicating another Yukon Quest/Iditarod victory, Lance was very practical. “It could happen, but it might take another 35 years for it to happen again.” For the 2008 season, he anticipates that he will train one team for the Yukon Quest and another for Iditarod–and expects, from past experience, that four to six dogs will run both races.Although both the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest will receive his full attention, his priority for the season is to win the 2008 All Alaska Sweepstakes Race scheduled for a March 26, 2008 start at Nome, Alaska. A top three Yukon Quest finish, a top ten Iditarod finish, and a win in the All Alaska Sweepstakes Race are the targets for Lance in 2008.I had one last question for the 2008 Iditarod favorite. I asked Lance about his health, since he is still dealing with the after effects of cancer treatment. Lance reported that he was feeling very good, keeping his weight, and had no issues or immediate health problems. However, the condition of his hands has been an ongoing concern, and nerve damage is gradually progressing. As a practical result, he is planning ahead for another three years of racing, and then he will leave the actual musher duties of racing to his son or handler. At that point, he plans to shift his business priority to coach and trainer and kennel owner.Mushing pundits will be quick to point out that the competitive tide changes every year and that a host of contenders stand ready to showcase new strategies in Iditarod 2008. Don’t forget that Martin Buser and Jeff King, 4th and 5th, will be back to fine tune their proven ability to win races. Doug Swingley, the four time champ, is not signed up to race Iditarod 2008, leaving a convenient void for Ed Iten, Mitch Seavey, John Baker, and Ken Anderson.Joe Runyan lives in Cliff, New Mexico and guides and outfits in the Gila Wilderness. He has officiated sled dog races in Europe, S. and N. America. Winner of Iditarod, Yukon Quest, and Alpirod, he now provides commentary and writes mushing, outdoor, and hunting articles. Runyan’s Winning Strategies for Distance Mushers (1997) is available from the author. Contact Joe at deserthound@starband.net.

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