IDITAROD 2009: NATURE’S SMACKDOWN: DEEP SNOW, HIGH WINDS, FRIGID TEMPS

It’s almost become common over the last few years to, each spring, sit back and reflect on a remarkable, history making Iditarod finish. Dog mushing’s most popular event only happens once a year and thus the historical factor of each win is often easy to highlight. It might be the first non-American win, a first win for a musher that continues a family dynasty, or a new four-time champion that ends up in the headlines of sports sections across the country. While these feats are noteworthy, it also puts the Iditarod into “consumable” chunks for readers coast to coast. It’s those “chunks” that might end up hurting the race in the long run, especially in a year such as this when there are truly remarkable stories that exist throughout the race.One could argue that 2009 will be remembered for a few things; Lance Mackey’s third consecutive win, putting him in a tier of Iditarod history that only two others of the sport’s greatest have ever been able to accomplish. This could be the year of the “great freeze,” harsher than normal sub-zero temperatures along the Yukon River & Norton Sound that took devastating tolls on both dogs & drivers, stopping even the toughest competitors in their tracks. Finally, this could also be remembered as a year in which breakout teams were scattered throughout the top ten, shaking up once again what it will take to compete in the Last Great Race.In January and Febuary, it was the Yukon Quest that drew more attention than normal when attempting to figure out what the 2009 Iditarod might look like. Lance Mackey’s 2007 Yukon Quest & Iditarod victories in the same year changed how the Quest was viewed within the mushing community, and the fact that he did it a second time in 2008 only highlighted the need for some teams to rethink how they look at training, and their year-long race schedule. Martin Buser was one of those who re-evaluated and changed his schedule in 2009, choosing to compete in two 1,000 mile races for the first time in his career. Buser’s 4th place Quest finish was a big deal, but even bigger was Mackey’s absence from a race he had won four times in a row, and helped put on the map. Lance left his Quest championship up for grabs and there were plenty of mushers waiting for the opportunity to take it. In the end it was Sebastian Schnuelle who won the 2009 Yukon Quest, with Hugh Neff just minutes behind him, now the big question was now how they would do in the Iditarod.If you were to break up the Iditarod into a few sections, the first chunk would be the one that goes all the way to Rainy Pass, and precedes much of the Alaska Range. Reports of heavy snowfall and colder temperatures gave hope for many going into this section that although it could mean slow going at the beginning of the race, it would also mean less strain on the dogs than a harder and faster start to the nearly 1,000 mile marathon that is the Iditarod. Up to Rainy Pass there were less scratches and injuries than most recent years have seen. If this was a gift that could be attributed to mother nature’s impact on trail conditions, it wasn’t a gift that would last much longer. Crashing on some glare ice over frozen muskeg ponds in the “Buffalo Tunnels “ outside of Rohn caused contender Bjornar Andersen to scratch a few hundred miles later up the trail in Takotna. Andersen told ADN reporters that after the crash he held onto the sled, while being dragged over stumps and frozen tundra tussocks. It was the threat of internal injuries that forced Andersen out of the race, despite having a potentially winning dog team at the time.Going into McGrath the top nine mushers included the injured, but still competing Andersen, along with a handful of other surprise teams that were a bit further ahead at this point than most (sometimes themselves included) expected to be. Aaron Burmeister arrived as the very team on a late Tuesday evening, winning the “Spirit of Alaska” Award, his first ever Iditarod award – after a lifetime of mushing. He arrived just twenty minutes ahead of Hugh Neff, and Sebastian Schnuelle. These three teams would continue to change the playing-field of the race all the way until Nome. At this point with the top nine all arriving into McGrath slightly over three hours of one another, it was pretty clear that the intricacies of how each team raced from here on out was going to determine in what order they would cross the burled arch. The test of strategy on everyone’s mind came with twenty-four layover decisions, when and where can be vitally important.With a such a tight pack of leaders, and with two-thirds of the nine teams having never before won an Iditarod it became a apparent that this could be the year a new musher takes home a victory. Burmeister, Schnuelle, and Neff leading the race all the way to Takotna was no small feat, and behind them was Lance Mackey, Jeff King, Mitch Seavey and Martin Buser, all teams with amazing careers, but also all with recent displays of powerful kennels. Mushing writers and pundits often talk about a young group of mushers, all waiting for their turn at Iditarod glory, those without lots of big sponsorships and financial backing. Zach Steer and Lance Mackey referred to this group as the “Dirty Coat Mushers” after Mackey’s first win in 2007. Suddenly in 2009 it’s a conversation again, and it can be argued that Mackey, with his back to back wins, his two brand new trucks, double ESPY award nominations, and appearance on Conan O’Brian, is still a part of that group of “underdog” mushers. Not only was he racing within an hour of Jeff King and Mitch Seavey at this point, but he also could suddenly be put in the same category as them, and a new group of young, dirty coat mushers were looking for an opportunity to hold onto the lead as long as possible.Maybe it was the rumors of terrible trail conditions out of Takotna, and whiteouts along the long stretch to Iditarod, but suddenly we saw tight running packs of competitive teams began resting in McGrath. Ken Anderson, Hans Gatt, and Ed Iten were within an hour of one another and decided to let others pass ahead as they hunkered down for the longest planned break in the race. Burmeister led a huge pack down the relatively short trail from McGrath to Takotna. From the time Burmeister arrived, to the time he left over a day later, over 30 teams decided to begin their twenty-four. Only two teams would continue past Takotna. Martin Buser surprised many after checking out of McGrath with a full 6 hours of rest, blowing through the horde of mushers pooled up in Takotna, and onto Ophir. It appeared to be a bold move, but in the end he and Jim Lainer quickly found themselves in the middle of the race again as the huge pack of teams continued on and passed them on the way to the race’s halfway point. It was at this spot in the race, between Takotna and Ophir that Lance Mackey started turning up the heat on those who were leading ahead of him. By the time it was time to present the gold nuggets to the first musher at the race’s halfway point, it was clear that Lance Mackey had accomplished something amazing. While conventional wisdom calls to break up the mind-numbing 90 mile trail into at least two runs (with a conveniently located cabin halfway through), Mackey achieved what many thought impossible and did the entire leg without major rests. The second musher into the checkpoint, Aaron Burmeister did the stretch to Iditarod at a respectable pace in fifteen hours, Mackey did it in ten. This run can easily be seen as the defining point in Mackey’s 2009 Iditarod victory.Mackey continued his lead all the way to the Yukon River and the checkpoint of Anvik, despite losing the trail for several hours. After the delicious meal awarded to him there was long gone and when the next three mushers came in and rested only for a few minutes, Lance pulled out right behind them, only he just completed his eight hour layover. Jeff King, Mackey’s much hyped rival from the 2008 Iditarod suddenly found himself eight hours behind the race leader. Amazingly Mackey would hold that lead all the way to the Bering Sea coast, and the native village of Unalakleet. It appeared that this would be the story of Iditarod 2009, an incredible and probably unbeatable lead by Mackey into a defining point of the trail. In Mackey’s two previous wins, never before had he reached this village in first place. Not only did he arrive first, but Mitch Seavey would be the next to arrive and wouldn’t do so until seven hours later.This, however, would not be the full story of Iditarod 2009. Outside of Shaktoolik, as the trail continues running along the Norton Sound, a team can pretty much expect some high winds and cold temperatures but no one was prepared for what was in store this year. Mackey arrived in Shaktoolik and after just 40 minutes headed into conditions that were at worst, potentially dangerous. Five hours later, a huge group containing King, Schnuelle, Baker, Seavey, Burmeister, and Hugh Neff all came into the checkpoint between 9:32 a.m. and 10:02 a.m. Schnuelle was the only musher to immediately leave and give chase to Mackey, followed a few hours later Aaron Burmeister and Mitch Seavey. Extreme cold and high winds, combining for a dangerous 50 below zero wind chill factor can be an extremely intimidating storm to head into, and decisions in this situation aren’t made lightly. Jeff King and John Baker made the decision to leave Shaktoolik shortly after Burmeister and Seavey headed into one of the worst storms in Iditarod history, as did Hans Gatt and Hugh Neff. With nearly 10 teams out of this checkpoint at 7 p.m. on Monday evening, it wouldn’t be until well over 24 hours later that the top ten teams would all be checked into Koyuk, just under 50 miles away.Burmeister and Seavey got only a few miles out of the checkpoint before pulling into a shelter cabin, soon to be joined by Jeff King and Hans Gatt. When it became clear supplies might not last as long as could be needed, Gatt & King turned their teams around and returned to Shaktoolik. Back at the checkpoint Jeff King told interviewers that he hadn’t seen weather that bad in years, and hadn’t had to turn his team around since 10 years earlier when he had found himself in a similar situation at that same spot with Lance’s older brother Rick Mackey. Lance, who had spent most of his day resting in Koyuk described the weather conditions along the trail as “demoralizing” for his dogs, requiring more rest before heading further on. Six hours behind the race leader into Koyuk was Sebastian Schnuelle, who had just over a day earlier made the risky move to separate himself from a pack of teams, who were now stuck way behind him. Even more impressive was that John Baker was quickly catching up to Schnuelle and had made a similar move going out of Shaktoolik, while many were turning around and realizing they couldn’t continue on for the time being. When the race started moving again on Tuesday morning, Ramey Smyth ventured out of Shaktoolik, leaving 13 mushers behind him at the same checkoint all doing the same thing – trying to figure out when they should leave. This had turned into the great Equalizer of the Iditarod, putting nearly the entire top 20 in the same spot, all contending for 4th place on. It was clear that Mackey, Schnuelle, and Baker were going to take care of the top three on their own. Jessie Royer took advantage of the equalizing storm and rolled into Koyuk just minutes before Aaron Burmeister, Dallas, and Mitch Seavey. The bitter and harsh weather of Iditarod 2009 made things interesting for the top twenty, but for those throughout the rest of the race who weren’t as focused on placing, and were more concerned with finishing, the weather provided unneeded and deadly hardships. Rookie Lou Packer’s dramatic rescue by the Iditarod Air Force on the way to Shageluk, and the tragic death of two of his dogs accent a race that was riddled with more dog deaths than this race has seen in over ten years. In the first year that GPS tracking was implemented for each team in the race, it could be this new technology that helped save Packer’s life. Lou’s wife had been at home watching him for hours and his GPS readings indicated he wasn’t moving very fast when he was even moving at all. The GPS tracking was introduced into the Iditarod during the 2008 race, and was available for free on the internet, however only a small handful of teams on the trail were outfitted with the tracking units. 2009 brought tracking on every team’s sled, however the information now required a paid subscription to access. This new and unprecedented access to instantaneously see the location and sometimes strategy of mushers was welcomed by fans across the world, really changing what it was like to be a spectator. Those in villages and checkpoints also noticed a big difference this year, in Unalakleet the crowd waiting on the ice for the first musher to arrive wasn’t nearly as big an hour before Mackey’s arrival as it normally is, but when the GPS tracker showed him a mile or two out from the village word got out quickly that an arrival was immanent.Mackey enjoyed a huge lead into White Mountain, and this translated into a less stressful last leg of the race than the last few years have given the now three-time champion. Instantly going into Iditarod history books, Lance Mackey’s third consecutive Iditarod victory puts him in an elite category alongside Doug Swingley and Susan Butcher. Finishing over seven hours later in a strong second place was another history maker, Sebastian Schnuelle proving it wasn’t just a Lance thing that you could win the Yukon Quest and seriously compete in the Iditarod the same year. Aside from Mackey, no one else has ever placed as high in the Iditarod after a Quest victory. Arriving into Nome in sixth place, Dallas Seavey showed once again the power behind Seavey dogs, and maybe more importantly showed all of us what he is capable of when unleashed from driving a puppy team. Aaron Burmeister, who led much of the early half of the race, arrived in seventh place, impressive for someone who had at the beginning of the race spoken about putting his team up for sale upon arrival in Nome. Cim Smyth finished in a career high fifth place, and his brother Ramey stayed in the top ten with a ninth place finish.While it’s a little early for any “theres always next year” talk, when looking at such a strong top ten its pretty easy to start dreaming about the potential so many of these talented teams have. Maybe it’ll be a record fourth straight win, it could be a history making fifth career victory, or maybe it’s a lifelong musher taking home an Iditarod championship for the very first time. Regardless, we know one thing for sure: it’ll always be exciting to be a fan, spectator or participant of world class mushing.Joshua Rogers’ musings on the Iditarod and other sled dog events have been featured on various websites, radio stations, and inserted into Versus television specials. You can follow his coverage and podcasts online every March during the Iditarod at iditablog.com.

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