Unalakleet, Alaska; March 2008The leaders of Iditarod 36 have paused here impatiently, briefly, and are now long up the trail. There were large crowds of spectators for the first few front-runners; the groups that meet the teams that pass now are smaller but still impressive. Closer inspection will reveal that the local folks are still here. It is just the media that is gone. Unalakleet is an Inupiat Eskimo village of just over 700 located on the Bering Sea Coast. The village nearly doubles in size for a few days during the Iditarod. Iditarod race personnel, race followers and media swell this community to capacity. Villagers from surrounding communities and relatives from as far away as Anchorage hop in to visit and watch the Iditarod. Basketball and the Iditarod; these are the winter events. A dim light appears in the east and “Dog team!” is the cry from the waiting group. Fifteen minutes later, Kotzebue’s John Baker pulls into the dog holding area. He is in the top 20, but moving slow. The team looks good and eats well. Baker rests short and he is gone in a few hours. This is the trend on the 2008 Iditarod; run long, rest little. The speed of the first ten teams through here is generally seven miles per hour or less. Their run times exceed their rests. The second group is slower still; the few that are faster in this group will move into the top ten by the finish. I was in Unalakleet for all of the Iditarod teams from Jeff King through Deb Bicknell. I looked at individual run/rest schedules, where and when teams stopped, how that related to team speeds and their final placements. The picture that emerged, overriding the technical aspects of this race, was a surprise to me. This race was not really about time; it was about people. Lance Mackey and Jeff King were, as expected, intense, focused, and had little time to talk to bystanders. The next fifteen or twenty were more talkative, but they were concerned about where they were going to end up in this highly competitive field. Almost every team from twenty-five to thirty-five, told me flatly, “I’m never doing this again!” A sigh of relief seemed to run though the racers that came after that first day.William Kleedehn shows up in Unalakleet as the lead rookie, twenty four hours off the pace. Though he is officially a rookie, he has eleven Yukon Quests behind him. He is a very good dog driver and a genuinely nice guy. William wondered aloud to me at the Iditarod re-start “How do they, (the leaders), go so long on so little bit of rest?” Now he knows. Go slow. “They start marching from day one—they need old Larry (Cowboy) Smith marching dogs. Speed don’t mean nothin’ any more!” His dogs eat and then sleep soundly. There are a lot of young dogs in this team, many two-year olds. “Oh boy! I have a dog team for next year, a crazy good team!” Kleedehn is undecided whether it is to be the Yukon Quest or the Iditarod next year. He has a chance at some major sponsorship for next year’s Quest, but he also likes the thought of the big purse pay-out on the Iditarod. William sees the long runs and slow speeds of the Iditarod, and in spite of his earlier words he is not totally convinced. “Someone needs to come here with a fast dog team and teach them a lesson.” It may be that he is right. Sven Haltman arrives in the checkpoint in a cloud of snow, hard on his brake. He is smiling and happy on his first Iditarod. He is a day and a half behind the lead. Sven has the fastest team running; consistently two miles per hour faster than Mackey—but—his rests are two hours longer than his runs. He is one of the guys with a single line of sponsors in his bio, rather than a whole page. Sven Haltman is here to learn, and to have a great time doing it. He came to Alaska from Switzerland, first working for Martin Buser before striking out on his own. Sven and his wife Andrea keep most of the dogs they raise and train them to fit into the team. At Unalakleet I asked Sven if he was going to win the Iditarod. He didn’t say no, he said, “Not if I have to do it like that!” pointing at the run/rest time-sheet of the leaders. Haltman is running his own race, seldom traveling around other teams, not skipping any checkpoints. “I rest better. When I get tired my judgment can waiver.” His dogs are a little thinner than he’d like, but this is one of the first teams I’ve seen that eats out of their bowls. He came here on a four hour run from Old Woman cabin, rests seven hours, and blazes the morning trail to Shaktoolik an hour and a half faster than anyone in the top ten. Zoya DeNure, is in the middle fifties of the field when she pulls in to Unalakleet. There is a big grin; she can see Nome, the fulfillment of a six year dream. She tells me she is having a ball. She has a love/hate relationship with the lights of checkpoints: it is great to see people, it is hard to step away from the dogs she has been spending all of her waking moments with. Her scheduling has been haphazard, typical of many rookie drivers. A broken sled in the Dalzell Gorge upset her timing and she has not been able to find the handle since. Zoya was a runway model in her past. Her toughest pre-race challenge was “Learning that looks don’t matter.” Prior to mushing: “What’s a crescent wrench?” In Unalakleet: “A brush? Why do I want that? The dogs don’t need brushing!” Looks are the farthest thing from her mind. The dog team is bouncy. This team and Karen Ramstead’s Siberians are the only two that have dogs gaining weight. Six hours here and she is gone, off to Shaktoolik an hour faster than Lance.The final couple dozen teams begin to filter in to Unalakleet nearly three days behind the front of the pack. These folks are relaxed, no tension here. They are psyched at what they are learning and what they have accomplished thus far. A few of the mushers toward the back are having some problems with their teams, but the dogs as a whole are energetic and well–rested. Rich Corcoran’s dogs do not lie down on the straw he provides, instead electing to play. His dogs act like puppies, pouncing and posturing before stopping to eat and settling to rest. Rich is from Valdez, the first musher from there to run the Iditarod. He quit his job as assistant manager at the Solomon Gulch Salmon Hatchery to train and race in the Iditarod. Ange, Rich’s wife, volunteered to care for dropped dogs along the race for a chance to see her husband on the race. She was at McGrath when he went through with no break, gone before she reached the checkpoint. She sees him at Unalakleet. Rich and the dogs are all overjoyed, and all get big hugs. He has not skipped checkpoints, nor has he made any radical moves. Takotna was his 24; there have been no very long runs. Corcoran’s outfit reflects that fact; there is minimal wear and tear. He is having the time of his life. Prior to the start, he was worried that his main leader, Zuni, might not make it. He dropped Zuni to a shoulder injury a couple hundred miles back, another leader stepped in the void and the team is here, able to smell Nome. He went over his driving bow in the Dalzell, crashed on the rocks of the Buffalo Tunnels and has been massaging dog shoulders since Nikolai. “This is way cool; it’s like a college course in dog care.” Will he run again? “Oh yeah! Well, maybe not next year, it’s expensive! But the year after for sure.” There is a big gap in teams, the checkpoint is empty except for Martin Koenig; he has been here for hours, sick with a temperature of 103. Another team turns the corner on the Unalakleet River in front of the store. It is driven by Liz Parrish, from Klamath Falls, Oregon. She has a team of 14 dogs—big team, big dogs. They have had lots of rest and don’t want to stop. Liz weighs about one hundred pounds. She has both feet on the brake as the checkers lead the team to parking. Liz started the Iditarod with a bad back and a great attitude. She has perseverance. On the Klondike 300, she ran into a huge spruce tree blocking the trail, instead of going around it, she cut through it with a bow saw. A bad crash in the Burn landed her on her snowhook. The vet crew wrapped her hip in Nikolai and it was eighteen hours before she was back on the trail. Parrish has been walking with a pronounced limp ever since. She is on blood thinners so can’t take ibuprophen or aspirin. She is a cancer survivor so being tired and sore is no big deal. Her runs tend to be longer. “It takes me so long to get ready that short runs don’t make sense.” She owns a Bed and Breakfast in Klamath Falls, and the Iditarod is a one-time event for her to celebrate her life with dogs and her 50th birthday. Her dream will be realized in another three days on Front Street in Nome. Molly Yazwinski and Deborah Bicknell are the last to arrive at the Unalakleet checkpoint. They stay for seven hours and by 1:00 am, Liz, Molly, and Deb are gone. The Iditarod has moved on for another year. The community will settle in to the coming basketball tournaments; some of the Iditarod teams have finished, some are still several days away from Nome. Veteran or rookie, all have been changed by their experience. Thirty time finisher Rick Swenson will tell you, “Things have changed on the Iditarod, they will always be changing, and that’s why I keep on running.”


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