IDITAROD 2007: RACE REPORT

There’s a rule in distance mushing: You can run both the Quest and Iditarod, but don’t expect to win the second one. With a week and a half break between races, dogs have the stamina to finish twin marathons, but not the speed to compete with a logjam of teams primed and focused on the Iditarod. That’s the rule anyway. Lance Mackey, a hardscrabble musher and cancer survivor with chronic truck issues, shattered that maxim in 2007, blasting his way into the record books and dog mushing lore behind a team of happy dogs led by a floppy-eared, gray dynamo named Larry.Mackey dominated the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest, easily winning it in record time on February 20th, and followed that feat by winning the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on March 13th with 13 of the same dogs. His Iditarod time of 9 days, 5 hours and 8 minutes was among the 10 fastest Iditarods ever. The naturally gifted dog trainer pulled off the unthinkable by doing what he does best. He changed his plans midstream and reacted to whatever stared him in the face. Mackey shoots from the hip – not blindly, but with the practiced skill and sharp eye of an old west gunslinger. This year, he shot a bull’s eye.And he did it in a race colored by tougher conditions than usual, and the Iditarod is almost always difficult. Race Marshal Mark Nordman pointed out that the uninitiated describe the Iditarod as the equivalent of three Kuskokwim 300s or two Kobuk 440s. They tally up the miles, but until they run the trail, they don’t get that this is an event that sends dog teams over a route they would never deliberately train on. It is difficult in the best of years; in 2007, it was a bone-breaker.A list of broken bones includes DeeDee Jonrowe’s finger, Doug Swingley’s ribs, Sigrid Ekran’s nose, Eric O. Rogers’ leg, and Bryan Mills’ leg. (Mills would stagger on and finish the race with a cracked fibula.) That’s not a comprehensive list. Most of those injuries occurred within the treacherous passage up and over the Alaska Range. Dozens of others suffered frostbite to their toes, feet, cheeks, chins, noses, and eyebrows. “I just thought it would be a little, I don’t know, safer,” said Bruce Linton, a rookie who qualified by running the Can-Am Crown in Maine and Don Bowers 300 in Willow. Linton finished 55th, and in the process, had his eyes opened to the realities of this race. “I never expected to see all this carnage, all these big names getting hurt, people getting frostbite, getting lost. It sort of made me scared. In some ways, it was like, ‘this race isn’t worth my life.’”The culprit in most of the injuries was the lack of snow. Snow levels were far below normal starting at Puntilla Lake, where the normally deep layer covering rocks, stumps and the undulating tundra grasses was just 14 inches thick. Teams also endured high winds with gusts reaching hurricane levels in the heart of the Alaska Range. Those winds up at Rainy Pass single-handedly delayed about a third of the race pack, creating one of the most strung-out Iditarods in recent memory. In addition to the wind, or maybe because of it, confusion at a critical turn leading up to the 3,200-foot Rainy Pass delayed some competitors and sent two on the journey of their mushing lives. Most mushers realized they’d overshot the critical turn, wasting two or more hours, but G.B. Jones, 58, and rookie Deborah Bicknell, 62, never turned back. They continued on through blistering headwinds down Ptarmigan Pass, following a trail broken out a few weeks earlier by the Iron Dog snowmachine race. Once they reached the Kuskokwim River, they turned right and followed it, past open holes in the ice and sometimes slipping into the cold water, until they finally reached Rohn. It was an exhausting 40-mile detour, and it cost them the race. Each scratched at Rohn.Bicknell, a rookie, spent the better part of a day running back and forth on the inhospitable upper reaches of the Kuskokwim River, knowing she was in the wrong place, but not knowing how to get out of the mess. She had no idea she could reach Rohn by following the river downstream. At one point, her sled tipped on some buckled ice, and she fell to her side into some soft snow. It crumbled beneath her, dropping Bicknell into open water. Finding purchase with one of her boots, she scrambled out, heavy with water, and got her team parked in some trees, where she built a bed of spruce boughs, stripped off her outer gear and slid into her sleeping bag for a few hours, comforted by two chemical hand warmers and a dog on either side of her.She got going again, heading back toward the Rainy Pass checkpoint. A pilot who landed nearby eventually got Bicknell turned around. “I don’t think I’ll be running it again,” said the always upbeat musher, back home in Juneau. “As tough as I think I am, it’s still a younger person’s race.”The situation beyond the Alaska Range, past the checkpoint of Rohn, was as difficult as anyone could remember since the days of the Farewell Lakes wildfire. Dogs made it through okay; it was mushers and sleds that took a pounding. Dog teams got a brief reprise on the south fork of the Kuskokwim River and over to Ophir, but they got pummeled again by no snow on the way to Iditarod. Meanwhile, the temperatures stayed between zero and 40 below and a persistent 15 mph headwind slowed teams down, especially once they reached the Yukon River.Within this framework, some excellent and gritty dog drivers maintained their focus not on simply surviving, but being first. The Iditarod is, after all, a race. Mackey was always in the mix, among a front-running crew of five that for 1,000 miles included Martin Buser, 2006 champion Jeff King, Paul Gebhardt, and Zack Steer. Steer wasn’t that big of a surprise to other mushers, especially those who have raced against him, but to the public it was, “Zack who?” Steer is best known as the owner of Sheep Mountain Lodge, where he puts on a popular early season 150-miler. To save on costs, he shares his kennel with Anchorage doctor Robert Bundtzen, who ran the younger dogs this year.One thing I noticed about Steer was how unfazed he appeared to be. The weather, sleep deprivation and trail didn’t seem to affect him. Steer also was the lone musher keeping his speeds fast by running short, by today’s standards, and resting just long enough. He would run six to seven hours and rest about five to six hours. Meanwile, the other four teams were making 10 or 12 hour runs and resting six or so, and sometimes less. That kept Steer a few hours behind the first four teams, but he started racing by the coast.Buser and Mackey took turns leading the first 300 miles of the race. King made a move to seize the lead through the middle stages up the Yukon River, chased by Buser. Before the race, King predicted that if his team looked solid, he would take a short break at Eagle Island as he had confidence in their off-season training, which included lots of swimming and red blood cell boosting in a barn converted into an altitude chamber. He delivered on his promise, taking a five hour rest after an 11.5-hour run over from Anvik. But King’s lead didn’t last. As King and Buser departed Eagle Island, Mackey chastised the race leaders for cutting rest to build a lead despite strong head-winds and temperatures well below zero. It would mentally tire their leaders, he predicted. Whether that was the cause, their teams did slow down. Mackey’s did not. Paul Gebhardt, too, maintained a freight train of a team.They caught up to King and Buser at Unalakleet, which is where Mackey impressed everyone with a happy, bubbly dog team that barked, lunged and wriggled in the snow. It became obvious there that Mackey’s veterans were the team to beat. None of the other drivers had that spark, this year. I saw the same magic in 2006 with King and his dogs. It was obvious then that King had the race won at Unalakleet over Doug Swingley. This time, it was clearly Mackey’s turn.Mackey knew it too, and put the pedal down for the final 200-mile dash to Nome. He built a lead of seven hours over his nearest competitors, save Gebhardt, whose team also showed tremendous energy. But while Mackey was laughing and cracking jokes at checkpoints, Gebhardt was popping antibiotics and stifling coughs from a brutal, feverish head cold. Gebhardt, a master at the 1,000-mile race, still wound up just two hours off Mackey’s pace.Steer took up the role of predator, first passing King, who characteristically eased off the hunt when it was obvious he could not win.Next in Steer’s sights was Buser, who had one of the most frustrating races among the front five, yet still turned in spectacular runs throughout the event. Buser just needs a few things to fall his way, and he is untouchable. But things not only didn’t fall his way this year, he had more than his share of roadblocks. His brand-new cable gangline broke not just once, but twice, forcing him to chase down his loose team the first time. Steer’s speedy dogs, made up from a mishmash of bloodlines he and Robert Bundtzen have bred over the years from other racing kennels such as Hans Gatt, finally caught up with Buser’s team in the final miles into Nome. Steer claimed third, Buser rolled in fourth, and King, fifth.“Score one for the dirty jackets this year,” Steer said at the finish line, an allusion to his success and certainly to Mackey’s win. Steer, 34, and Mackey, 36, represent a younger generation, but they’re also proof that lower budgets do not rule out success in the Iditarod. Still, the top 10 in 2007 was dominated by some familiar faces: King, Buser, Gebhardt, Ed Iten, John Baker, and Mitch Seavey. Ken Anderson, 34, of Fox, Alaska, made a return to the top 10, finishing seventh. He was 5th in 2003. And Tollef Monson, 28, rounded out the top 10, running younger, second-string dogs for John Baker.Of that bunch, Iten had perhaps the most energetic dogs late in the race, short of Mackey. The Kotzebue musher kept scaring the competition but wound up too far off the lead pace to make a move. Race veterinarians recognized his dog care, awarding Iten the 2007 humanitarian award.As the front-runners were gunning for victory in the home stretch, one of the race’s sweetest mushers, Karen Ramstead, was crying her eyes out. Her dog, Snickers, had died from a bleeding ulcer despite several hours of care by dedicated veterinarians at Grayling. Their efforts inside the log-walled community center included a blood transfusion from Snickers’ brother, Crunchie. Ramstead has long had a tough but realistic goal of finishing the Iditarod in 12 days; a solid run for AKC registered Siberians. But this year, she would scratch in mourning for her lost dog.Soon after, word started to emerge about two more dog deaths, followed by rumors of trouble with Ramy Brooks’ dog team near Golovin. First, one of Matt Hayashida’s dogs died from canine pneumonia, a condition that very well could have been triggered by an ulcer. Dogs can regurgitate when they get an ulcer, then inhale the stomach bile, which leads to pneumonia. It is unclear if that happened with Hayashida’s dog, but given Ramstead’s grief and Hayashida’s loss, and the pneumonia scare with Mackey’s dog Zorro, ulcers remain a major concern among mushers, veterinarians and race officials.The situation surrounding Brooks was muddier, and news went from bad to dismal. One of his dogs, named Kate, died suddenly on the way in to Safety. Veterinarians there weren’t equipped to perform a necropsy and convinced Brooks, who wanted to scratch, to carry the dog on to Nome. There, his official finishing time was delayed several hours until a gross necropsy could be performed on Kate. A cause of death could not be pinpointed in her case.Unrelated to the dog’s death, reports began surfacing from Golovin that Brooks had hit some of his dogs after they’d sat down on a patch of ice just outside the village. Officials heard several accounts and asked Brooks about them. Even though some of the accounts, as reported in the Anchorage Daily News, included punching and kicking, Brooks only admitted hitting his dogs with wooden trail markers. That admission alone was enough for a panel of three judges to vote unanimously to disqualify the Healy musher.As I write, the Iditarod Trail Committee has just called for an independent investigation to get a clearer picture of what went on, so it can determine if more measures need to be taken. There will be a board meeting on April 27th where the issue is likely to be discussed, probably in a closed session. In the past, the race has banned mushers from future participation for hitting dogs.The Iditarod is usually an emotional event, and the furor surrounding Brooks has split the post-race climate into joy and jubilation over Mackey’s amazing victory vs. anger and dismay regarding Brooks’ behavior outside Golovin. Yet there were 80 other dog teams in this year’s spectacular race, and several had impressive runs through the bumpy tundra fest of 2007.Cim Smyth proved up on his brother, Ramey’s, boast a couple of years ago that Cim was developing a very good dog team. He finished 11th, wearing cross-country running shoes the last 77 miles and posting the fastest run from Safety to Nome, 2 hours and 4 minutes. Robert Sørlie, one of the obvious favorites to win, since he has a habit of winning every race, had to be disappointed with his 12th place finish. Aaron Burmeister, who continually shows up in the front of long distance races, polished off a strong season. Like Mackey, he ran the Quest and Iditarod back to back. Jason Barron of Lincoln, Mont., realized early on that his vision of winning wasn’t going to come true. Minor injuries dogged his team. Still, his racing skills kept him firmly in the top 15. Hans Gatt was the stealth musher this year, quietly piloting his gifted dogs to 15th place. Ramey Smth, 16th this year, was juggling duties as a new dad but still put together a solid run. Ray Redington returned to the top 20, surprising himself since he hadn’t had as much time conditioning the dogs since he, like Ramey Smyth, was raising a new baby this winter. He helped guide his half brother, Ryan, into the top 20 for the first time. The two ran together most of the race. Hugh Neff, 19th, had his highest finish ever. And rounding out the top 20 was Sigrid Ekran, the fastest rookie and the highest finishing woman in 2007. Ekran, who helped Team Norway get its drop bags packed for years before training her own dog team last winter, smiled her way down the trail, despite breaking her nose in the Dalzell Gorge. More on Mackey’s winAt Anvik, Mackey sipped on a cup of coffee and bit chunks of cheese while thinking out loud about his team. Wearing the tattered good-luck sweater that his father, Dick, wore in races and staring at the ceiling, he said then that his Quest “training” helped his dogs. The high-stepping and tricky footing they had in the Quest readied them for the same kind of dancing in this snow-short Iditarod.The second half of the Quest also was more or less a hardcore training run for him, since he had the race wrapped up by Dawson. His dogs came off the Quest looking solid; and, as reported in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner recently, the younger dogs he left back home to run Iditarod did not look so good. Some were sore, some pregnant, and some were underweight for Iditarod.Facing that scenario, Mackey the gunslinger made the best shot he could, from the hip, and he made it at the last minute, filling out his 16-dog Iditarod team with 13 Quest dogs. The result is in the record books. Perhaps the best move was including one of his beloved leaders, Larry. Mackey pointed out that he had six leaders share duty, but it was obvious late in the race that Larry was the guy driving the team off their straw. It’s like that every year. Gebhardt had Governor in single lead along the coast, or paired with his other main man, Houston. Last year, King had a remarkable dog named Salem setting the pace. Salem was hurt and unable to run Iditarod this year. Pick a winner and there’s usually a remarkable lead dog associated with them. Susan Butcher had Granite. Doug Swingley had Peppy. Martin Buser had D2 (and others). Mitch Seavey had Tread. Robert Sørlie had Socks. That is just to name a few.Anyone watching Mackey depart White Mountain could plainly see that Larry was the man. Larry was in single lead, had his head down and seemed to single-handedly pull that dog team down Fish River and out of sight for the final 11 hour run to Nome.The plain facts of Mackey’s achievement are staggering. Mackey spent six years building a racing kennel on a shoestring, battled back from severe neck cancer and yet has ridden a winning streak that would make Tiger Woods jealous. He capped it off this year with an unprecedented double thousand – two victories, in the Yukon Quest and Iditarod, running a team of essentially the same dogs in both 1,000-mile races. He’s also the third of the Mackey family to win the Iditarod. Each won it on their sixth attempt, and each wore bib number 13. Could it be more perfect?Mackey still had setbacks, but remained unflustered. He continued to ride a sled with a broken left runner in the brutal ascent and descent of the Alaska Range and through the Farewell burn. It was as if the missing left footpad made no difference to him at all. One thing is for sure. Never tell Mackey he can’t do something. He’ll set out to do it, and he has a habit of pulling off the unthinkable.Jon Little is a five-time Iditarod veteran, a veteran of the Yukon Quest and lots of other Alaska mid-distance races. He still races with a small kennel while writing about the Iditarod for www.cabelasiditarod.com.

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