Ken Anderson’s Iditarod Journal

Iditarod musher Ken Anderson departs on the first leg of the 40th running of the Iditarod. (Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class David Mosley)

 

Veteran sled-dog racer Ken Anderson, a Forest Lake native, is taking part in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race for the 12th year. The field of 66 took off from Willow, AK on Sunday, March 4. Anderson, the son of Henry and Betty Anderson of Forest Lake, placed a career-best fourth in the 2008 race and finished ninth last winter. This year’s race follows the northern route for 975 miles to Nome.

Anderson’s wife, Gwen Holdmann, updates friends and fans on his progress through an online blog during the famous race. The entries will be posted below as the Iditarod goes on. For more information on Anderson, see his Web site at www.windycreekkennel.com.

Entry No. 1 – Sunday, March 4

Teams leave from Willow under beautiful clear skies

After a fun day at the ceremonial start and a somewhat late night making final preparations, we are headed to Willow for the restart of the 2012 Iditarod this morning. I know Ken is very eager to get out on the trail. He has been working very hard for months to get the dogs and himself into the best shape possible to compete. After literally thousands of miles training, this is probably one of the strongest teams – if not the strongest team – he has ever brought to the starting line. Here are some facts about Ken’s team this year:

  • Of the 16 dogs he is starting with, 12 are males and 4 females (there have been years where this ratio has been reversed and he has had mostly females in his team).
  • The average weight of his dogs is about 65 pounds, which is a bit heavier than in the past. This is partially because he has so many males in the team this year.
  • Of the 16 dogs, 13 run in lead. Ken expects to switch around leaders quite a bit on the trail this year and does not really have any particular standouts.
  • The age of Ken’s dogs ranges from 3 to 6 years, which are considered prime racing ages for sled dogs. He has no particularly young or old dogs in the team.
  • 14 of his 16 dogs are veterans of the Iditarod race, and a majority of those have seen the finish line at least once.

The ceremonial start yesterday went off more or less without a hitch. If you would like to see some pictures, there are some great shots posted on the Coast Guard website at http://www.d17.uscgnews.com/go/doc/780/474403/. The dogs all wore their traditional Red Paw Feed dog coats to honor one of our two main sponsors, which I noticed raised quite a few comments from the crowd.  The coats are fairly ingenious as they are sewn from real dog food bags. Red Paw has been sponsoring Ken for over a decade, ever since he decided the then-fledgling company had the best product on the market, and he and Red Paw have grown together over the years.

Gwen Holdmann, wife of Iditarod musher Ken Anderson, holds one of Anderson's sled dogs prior to the March 3 ceremonial start to the race in Anchorage, AK. (U.S Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class David Mosley)

Ken and I particularly appreciated all the help and support from the Coast Guard, who have become true partners with Ken both on the race trail and through his educational program for the past three years. This year, Captain Buddy Custard, Chief of Staff for the Alaska Coast Guard drove Ken’s drag sled. We enjoyed getting to know him and his wonderful wife Trish, who just happens to be a children’s author who writes books about dogs!

Ken’s Iditarider hailed from Ken’s home town of Forest Lake, Minnesota and so they had much in common to chat about. Ken’s parents were also able to fly in late Friday night for the start from Minnesota, which was a nice surprise for us. However, we missed Glenn Blantz and his family and friends who have come up almost every year from Pennsylvania. We also missed Daryl and Pam Verfaillie, who have become good friends through our involvement with the Coast Guard but have been transferred to the Great Lakes Region.

Also missing from the start this year are our three children, Leif, Marais, and Lily, who I dropped off with my parents in Rockford, Illinois earlier in the week. They are going to stay with Oma and Opa through the end of the race, where they will be spoiled completely rotten (as grandparents have a right to do). They have a great relationship with my parents and were very excited when I flew down with them, but it’s the longest I’ve ever been away from the kids and I have to admit it’s a little tough.

After the restart, I will be driving with Ken’s parents back to Anchorage, and then flying back up to Fairbanks late tomorrow night. I will try to write another update at the airport or when I get back to the house.

Entry No. 2 – Monday, March 5

Different strategies start to appear as mushers head toward Rainy Pass

I have decided the motto for this year is ‘anything goes’. In the past, I have tended toward predictions such as guessing that mushers running in the front of the pack early on would not be able to maintain their pace, but one of the exciting things is to see how many variations on different strategies have been tried – with varying success – over the past several years. This year, the weather and trail conditions will add an additional wild card to the strategy game. In a week from now, we will be looking back on these first few runs and analyzing how the front runner set themselves up for a successful race during these early stages. With the benefit of hindsight, the top teams will look like geniuses. However, luck also can play a big part. With all the snow on this side of the Alaska Range and more in the forecast, it can become a definite factor, particularly if it starts moving. Blowing snow in the Rainy Pass area would be almost impossible to keep broken out, and new snow could impact mushers coming behind to a greater degree than the front runners.

Last night, Ken had second slowest time in top 50 to Yentna, averaging 6.87 mph according to the Ion Earth tracker. Only Jake Berkowitz, who is a very savvy up and coming young musher, had a slower time. Bruce Linton, Zoya Denure, Ray Redington Jr, and Jodi Bailey had the fastest times – all over 8 mph on average. One thing I am curious about is how the Ion Earth system is calculating the average run speeds. The ‘trail’ as displayed on the tracker screen looks like a series of straight lines approximating (not very closely) the actual trail the mushers are traveling on. I assume they are calculating run speeds based on the actual data recorded from individual trackers and not correlating them to this estimated route (which could result in significant under-estimates). On the other hand, the average speeds posted on the Iditarod site are based on published mileage and can be wildly inaccurate since the trail varies from year to year. For example, teams that averaged 7-8 mph yesterday enroute to Yentna subsequently appear to be averaging 11-12 mph going to Skwentna. That is definitely not the case – teams don’t dramatically slow down or speed up unless the terrain changes. I think the true average lies somewhere in between.

After poking along, Ken left Skwentna in 10th place, which looks great but is more of a factor showing the different strategies already arising. Expect teams to leapfrog between here and their 24 hour layover (most popularly taken in Takotna). Several top mushers ran straight to Skwenta, taking a little over 7 hours and then resting about 4. This includes Lance Mackey, Ray Reddington Jr, Aily Zirkle, and basically anyone who took a decent break in Skwentna and is considered a contender. The other strategy is to break up the run to Rainy Pass into 3 legs, and keep them each under 6 hours running. These mushers are largely resting out of checkpoints, and it is difficult to gauge exactly how long they are running and resting. This is probably the more conservative strategy and Ken definitely falls in this camp. He stopped somewhere just past Onestone Lake in the very early morning hours and camped for about 4 hours. Now he will run through Finger Lake to Rainy Pass before taking his next break. I can tell you that Ken is paying very little, if any, attention to the teams around him. He is very good at focusing on his own dogs and strategy, and will be doing what he thinks it takes to get to the coast in the shortest amount of time possible. He is good at putting on blinders and being completely unfazed or influenced by what other mushers are doing.

Entry No. 3 – Monday, March 5

Teams head for ‘The Burn’

8:50pm AK Standard Time

As I write this, the leaders are into Rohn – a tiny and very remote log cabin nestled on the north side of the Alaska Range that sees frantic activity for a very few days of the year when the Iditarod comes through. From the reports I have been listening to, the trail has been near-perfect, at least to Rainy Pass. However, this is about to change. The north side of the range has significantly less snow and at least a couple of days ago, indications were that snow levels in ‘The Burn’, a desolate section between Rohn and Nikolai, was about an inch, with plenty of stretches of glare ice for teams to skate over. It’s been 11 years since I ran the Iditarod, but the year I did there was similarly no snow on this stretch which made negotiating the trail a bit challenging to say the least.

Sometimes people who are not that familiar with dog mushing are surprised the race goes over bare ground. A sled will more or less go over anything, although both sleds and runners take a beating if there is no snow. The dogs actually seem to like it, since they have better traction. And since dogs seem to sense (and get a kick out of) the fact that the musher has a limited ability to brake without good snowpack, they like to play crack the whip a bit. Or maybe that is just my suspicion, because the trip through this snowless section still stands out in my mind 11 years later. I made it through OK due more to luck than talent, but Ken has broken his sled on this stretch twice. The first time he broke his handlebar and the second time he went over a stump that took out all the cross pieces under his sled bed. After the second incident, he had to return to Rohn for repairs, which cost him quite a bit of time and ultimately knocked him out of the top 10 that year.

Whatever conditions the mushers find enroute to Nikolai, this is undoubtedly a critical strategic leg of the race. For most of the top teams, the strategy they have employed leading up to Rohn has been intended to set them up for this stretch. Key factors include the time of day and the length of run. An extra variable this year is the fact that with no snow, there are limited options for camping out where the mushers will have access to water or snow to melt for their teams. Fortunately, there are several creeks that have open water. Two that mushers commonly stop at are Tin Creek (a couple hours outside of Rohn), and Sullivan Creek, on the other side of The Burn about 2+ hours before Nikolai.

Ken has dropped behind the leaders a bit, due to a combination of slow runs and fairly lengthy rests – both part of his pre-race strategy. He just left Rainy Pass with Martin Buser after a fairly leisurely 5 hour break. I reviewed my notes from talking with Ken before the start, and he had planned a 4 hour break in Rainy Pass, an hour shorter than what he took. Ken plans to pay very close attention to the time of day he is running and resting. He stressed this several times when I discussed strategy with him prior to the race. Dogs are diurnal, and if they are to get by on minimal rest, he feels they need to be resting when their natural biorhythms dictate they should be. This is in the middle of the afternoon, and late at night. He wants to be running in the evening and early morning hours, which makes his 7:20pm departure from Rainy Pass fairly ideal.

Ken outlined two options he will consider based on his arrival time in Rohn, which will probably be around 11:20pm tonight. If the run from Rainy Pass takes him less than 4 hours, he will push through Rohn and run a couple more hours to Tin Creek. However, he wants to keep his runs at this point in the race no longer than 6 hours. So if he takes longer than 4 hours to reach Rohn – which means that running all the way to Tin Creek (the first place he can get water) will take over 6 hours, he will pull over in Rohn for a break. I am guessing that based on the expected hour of his arrival, he will want to push on a bit further before taking his next break at around 1:30am.

Entry No. 4 – Tuesday, March 6

Teams arrive in Nikolai

2:30 p.m.

One of my favorite activities in years past has been to create a spreadsheet and track run/rest times and ratios both in and outside checkpoints to try and divulge individual mushers’ strengths as well as their strategies. I’ve abandoned that approach this year simply because there are so many extremely competitive teams out there right now, and it is impossible to stay updated on all of them. Nonetheless, I have gone back and looked at a few teams that I was particularly interested in. One mushers that looks well positioned (not surprisingly, given that he in the defending champ) is John Baker. John is very sharp, and is running a very interesting strategy. He consistently took 3 hour breaks (before Skwentna, at Finger Lake and at Rainy Pass) and kept his runs under 6 hours before running straight from Rohn to Nikolai. A contrasting strategy is used by Lance Mackey. Lance completed a 7 hour run to Skwenta, then followed that up with an 8 hours to Rainy Pass with 3:45 and 5:40 minute breaks respectively. Jeff did essentially the same thing but with a tad more rest (5:45 hrs in Skwentna and 5 hrs in Rainy Pass), as did Paul Gebhardt. All of those teams are sitting in the top 8 in Nikolai as I write this, and most will probably run through McGrath and 24 in Takotna.

Ken took a ½ hour break out in The Burn this morning around 8:25am, and arrived in Nikolai about a ½ hour ago in what I estimate to be about 32nd place, although the Iditarod website has not posted his arrival time yet. This puts him into Nikolai about 5 hours behind the rabbit, Aliy Zirkle, and about 3-1/2 hours behind Mitch Seavey, Jeff King, and Paul Gebhardt, who are nicely positioned in 6-8th place. Ken was hoping to arrive in Nikolai 3 hours behind the leaders, so he is a little behind where he hoped to be at this point in the race. Nonetheless, there is plenty of trail left to run on and room to make up lost time – especially if he still has a strong team. Since he took a break on the trail, his run time will not be spectacular but he seemed to be moving along at a steady 7+ mph. From here, I expect him to follow what has been a very common strategy of running to Takotna and taking his 24 hour break there.

For those of you who are interested, there is a nice podcast of Ken giving a pre-race interview available at: http://www.myyukonlife.com/podcasts/episode-53-iditarod-musher-ken-anderson/. Thanks to Jennifer Hawks for posting it.

Entry No. 5 – Wednesday, March 7

Teams settle in for their mandatory break

9 a.m.

As I write this, most of the top half of the race is parked in the tiny town of Takotna, population of about 20. It’s become the undisputed favorite place to take the mandatory 24 hour layover due to a combination of its strategic location and incredible hospitality for such a small and remote town.

Ken arrived at 5:20am in 23rd place. This puts him right at 5 hours behind the leaders, which is a slightly better position than last year when he left Takotna in 22nd place 6 hrs and 35 minutes behind the leaders. I also noticed that Ramey Smyth, who came in 2nd place last year, left Takotna 3 hours and 40 minutes behind the leaders in 14th place, so that proves there is still plenty of time to move up. Both Ramey and Ken moved up 13 places in the standings between Takotna and the finish line last year, Ramey just had a little bit less of a hole to dig out of. This year, Ken and Ramey will be leaving Takotna at almost the exact same time, assuming they both take the layover there. Curiously, Martin Buser will be leaving just slightly behind them. Last year, Martin was the first team into Takotna so either his race is not going as planned, or he has a very different strategy this time around.

As another point of comparison, I looked up Ken’s position in Takotna relative to the leaders in the two years he came in 4th place (2010 and 2008), which are his highest finishes. In 2010 he left just over 3 hours and 15 minutes behind the leaders after 24-ing in Takotna. In 2008, he pushed on to Cripple before taking his 24 hour layover, and was about 10+hours behind the leaders in about 18thplace when he left.

The weather is a very definite extra element this year. There are going to be no records broken as they were last year when the trail was near perfect. The leaders are about 1-1/2 hours behind the pace from last year, and I would expect the infrequently traveled section between Takotna and Ruby to be very slow. This is because the entire interior portion on the state has been hit by substantial snowfall over the past couple of days. In fact, I was not able to get out of my driveway this morning so I may be working from home today. If the Cripple area has anything like the 2 feet of snow I waded through around my house last night, it is going to be a slog. It will be interesting if anyone decided to play the rabbit and head on to Cripple. The trail breakers generally are sent out in front of the first team, so that musher will have some sort of trail, although there may not be much of a base depending on the last time it was broken out. It should drop below 0°F tonight, though, so that would give whatever trail is put in a chance to firm up overnight and it could be pretty decent for the first teams leaving tomorrow. The trail could fall apart again for later teams as the base disintegrates, or it could get even better as more snow is packed down. It’s hard to say, and has a lot to do with the characteristics of the snow and the temperatures. What we have here in Fairbanks is very light fluffy snow that is easy to push around, but if the wind is the element doing the pushing it can quickly form big drifts that can really impact the forward momentum of the dogs.

Here is a cool map showing weather conditions along the Iditarod trail:http://www.wunderground.com/resources/education/Iditarod.asp

Ken did not dismiss the possibility of going on to Cripple himself. If so, he said he would take a 5-6 hour break in Takotna before heading over to Cripple. That would have him leaving in the next hour. Somehow, I doubt he is going to do this as the going has been a bit slow and he has dropped 3 dogs (no word on who those are). I think he and his team are due for a nice long break. If he does take his rest in Takotna, he will be able to leave sometime just after 6am tomorrow morning.

I will leave you with this interesting fact – no mushers have scratched to this point, which is quite unusual. I consider it to be a testament to the ever improving skills of the average team in the race and the fact that the trail appears to have very well put in with a minimum of obstacles. Nice work to everyone involved!

Entry No. 6 – Wednesday, March 7

Ken checks in from Takotna

5:30 p.m.

I just got off the phone with Ken, currently on his 24 hour mandatory layover in Takotna. He sounded very upbeat and positive about things, including his position in the race right now. While he didn’t have any exciting incidents like some other teams have reported, it did sound like it was quite a slog for him. He said he stayed a little longer than planned at Rainy Pass because it was hot, the trail was slow, and he thought his team could use some extra rest. He also said he had a good run to Rohn, but not a very smooth run from Rohn to Nikolai as he got stuck behind some teams that were having minor issues and had to stop quite a bit. He also stopped at the Buffalo Camp (about halfway) to replace booties, change runner plastic, and snack the dogs – all of which took about a ½ hour. On the last stretch, he had to break trail a lot and switched off leadership duties with Sigrid since the trail had blown in and drifted badly behind the first group to go through. He similarly said he had to break a lot of trail out of McGrath. I suspect many of the other teams were in the same boat – this light fluffy snow that we are getting does not pack down easily and just shifts around, especially if there is any wind. So everyone probably felt they were doing more than their fair share of snow plowing.

Ken apparently dropped Bernie in Rohn because he was struggling a bit to keep up.  Ken called Bernie his ‘barometer’ prior to the race, since he is the slowest dog in the team and Ken wanted to keep his speed at a comfortable pace for both him and the rest of the dogs. He also dropped Mr. Big, a dog from our friend Kent Kaltenbacher, who Ken surmised missed his brother Max and wasn’t too into the experience. Max and Mr Big are usually inseparable and reliable, agile wheel dogs but Max just missed the cut. The last dog Ken dropped was Einstein, who just wore himself out working too hard.  Ken actually loaded him in his sled for the last 10 miles into McGrath before dropping him. He felt good about the rest of his team, saying he has been switching dogs around a lot. He has been especially careful not to keep anyone in lead or wheel for too long. He mentioned that Regret and Grace have been doing particularly well in lead (girl power!), and that he has had no major issues other than a few minor wrists that he is managing. Apparently, some of the other teams are coming down with a virus and have issues with diarrhea, but Ken said only a couple of his dogs seem affected.

Overall, Ken said this was by far the slowest trail he has ever seen on the Iditarod, and he thinks it will really shape the later parts of the race. He has been paying very little attention to what is going on around him, and has been very focused on his own team. He plans to run this next part of the race with a close eye on the time of day. He will be able to leave Takotna at around 6:00 am tomorrow morning, and plans to run about 8 hours, and then take a 3-4 hour break before going on to Cripple. Ideally, he would like to stick with that sort of schedule for the next third of the race, stopping in the afternoon and very late night/early mornings without regard to whether that puts him in a checkpoint, or camping out on the trail.

Entry No. 7 – Thursday, March 8

Teams are at the halfway point

9 p.m.

I spent most of the day today judging science projects at a local middle school, so I have only now had the chance to catch up on the race. Thanks to Pam Verfaillie from the Coast Guard (actually, her husband Darryl is a Captain in the USCG) for keeping me updated on Ken’s progress with quick e-mail notes all day.

Ken is marching toward the halfway point of the race in Cripple, along with half of the field. It is almost hypnotic to watch the little squares that represent individual mushers marching down the trail, which is delineated by a red line. I’ve been paying close attention to run speeds over the last hour, at least for the pack around Ken.  Right now, Ken’s tracker shows him at 9.7 mph, which may be the highest speed I have seen him hit although the realist in me recognizes he is probably going downhill or on a stretch of trail where the satellite is not accurately measuring horizontal distance traveled due to uneven terrain. Oops – now he just dropped to 8.1 mph. That seems more realistic, although still a good clip for this point in the race.

According to Joe Runyan’s updates on the Iditarod website that are based on reports from the trail breakers, the trail gets worse the last 25 miles to Cripple, meaning the snow is extremely powdery. Apparently nearly everyone at Cripple is using snowshoes to get around. However, it looks to me as though the trail is finally packing down a bit because the run times of the teams just ahead of Ken are fairly respectable. Standouts in my opinion Jake Berkowitz, who just seems to be flying along, and Pete Kaiser.  Both are young up and coming mushers who have proven themselves as tough competitors with top finishes elsewhere. The mushers in this next wave to hit Cripple will also have (for the most part) rested their team through the hottest part of the afternoon and that could play to their strategic advantage compared to the teams ahead. Ken rested from 1:00 to 4:00 pm, right through the hottest part of the afternoon. I am expecting him into Cripple at about 11:00 pm.

Once Ken gets to Cripple, it will be interesting to see what he does.  I would personally like to see him go another hour or two down the trail, so he can avoid running in the wee early hours of the morning. But I am sure that the checkpoint will look very tempting, and staying there would avoid the need to haul a bunch of food and straw along for a campout. Ken has also undoubtedly been working extremely hard, and the chance to dry out his cloths would be an extra bonus he would get out of staying. Run times in 2010 – the last time the teams came this way – was about 10 hours for the top teams and in 2008 it was not too much faster. Even in a very good year, it will take over 8 hours for most of the top teams. So I think Ken would be well served to run through Cripple a couple hours further down the trail, camp out, and then run in to Ruby and take his 8 hour layover.  We’ll see ….

Entry No. 8 – Friday, March 9

Teams head down the Yukon River

9 p.m.

I have started this update three times today, and each time – by not finishing – most of what I write is outdated by the time my next chance comes around to work on it. To top it off, I got a cryptic voice message from Ken on my cell phone around 3:00pm this afternoon. It turns out he was sitting in the middle of the checkpoint when he called and did not want to reveal any strategic details within earshot of a half-dozen other mushers. I called the number back that he had used, and it belonged to a really nice guy named Jerry. I asked him to PLEASE, if he saw Ken again, have him call me back. Jerry called me again about a half hour later and told me he was pretty sure Ken was sleeping but would pass the message on when he woke up. Ken did call back – eventually – at 8:15pm.

Ken’s original voicemail was fairly comical in its simplicity and typical Ken – low key and understated. Since it’s short, I will include his exact words and then translate based on the conversation we had:

Ken: ‘Hey Gwen, it’s Ken calling from Ruby. Things are going well, things are going fine, the team is kind of coming together and clicking along. They are eating good and I still have all 13 dogs I had on my 24. (getting very quiet) Soooo … I think it might be time to race. I haven’t been paying any attention to anyone else or run times, I have just been doing my own thing. OK – take care – bye.’

Gwen’s Translation (based on my phone conversation with Ken this evening): The team is really starting to gel.  They’ve been a bit disjointed up until now and I have had to switch dogs around a lot, but the girls are really holding their own in front, with Regret, Grace, and Risk sharing most of the leading duties. Regret is the standout so far. The speed has not been too impressive, but it’s not bad, and is improving relative to other teams around me. I have totally kept the blinders on and paid no attention to anyone else or where I am in the standings. I have just paid attention to my team, and my goal is to get to the coast as quickly as possible – not to get to Cripple or Ruby or Galena quickly. The dogs are eating well and are healthy, I am not going to drop anyone in Ruby. I don’t have any question marks in the team right now – everyone is holding their own. It’s been cold at night (well below zero, possibly dropping to -40 on Yukon tonight), but it has seemed extremely hot during the mid-afternoon hours (for those of you living or vacationing in Florida, this is obviously in relative terms). I am planning to try my best to avoid running very late at night or midday if I can possibly avoid it, and that will dictate my strategy for the next couple of days. Since I leave Ruby at 9:30pm (I am taking a mandatory 8 hour layover), I will stop in Galena, arriving at about 4:00am.  I won’t stop long – probably 3-ish hours, and then head to Nulato and stop again for another break around 2:00pm. From Nulato, I might make a really big push through Kaltag and on to the coast, but I’ll also wait and see how things develop.

Ken also said he has hardly seen anyone on the trail, but has been enjoying his competitors in the checkpoints. He specifically mentioned Jake Berkowitz and Pete Kaiser (who he says each have a legitimate chance to challenge for a win based on what he has seen of their teams), along with Ramey Smyth. He also felt the race was still very wide open, and that there was still a chance for someone to come from behind to win. He felt some of the teams at the top might be over playing their cards and would drop back a bit later, but obviously there are a lot of very solid teams. He really marveled at the quality of the teams both in front of and behind him, and commented on how hyper-competitive things have become. There is just no room for an error, or for an extra nap, without dropping several spots. He feels very focused and positive about his team right now. However, keeping ahead of the teams that are currently behind him will be just as challenging as catching some of those ahead.

Entry No. 9 – Saturday, March 10

Teams jockey for position on the Yukon River

3 p.m.

Wow. This has been a very exciting race, and the sheer number of teams still in contention for first place is amazing – the most I can ever recall. It’s hard not to become completely addicted to the Iditarod Insider information, especially the IonEarth tracker. Today is the first day since the start I have not been distracted by work, and I am having a hard time tearing myself away from the computer. I am alternating between watching the race and shoveling our entire driveway by hand (we have a very long driveway and about 18 inches of snow) so we can haul water to the house. We have been forced to park out on the road since the big snow dump we received earlier in the week, and I have not been successful in finding anyone to plow us out. Ken is usually the neighborhood plow guy, but he is a bit busy at the moment and his plow truck is down in Anchorage with our handler, Megan. Fortunately, our neighbor Jimmy brought over his ‘snow scoop’ for me this morning, and even hand shoveled a huge portion of the lower half for me. Thanks Jimmy!

One thing I get frustrated about is how focused the coverage is on the very front of the race. Aily, Dallas, Mitch, and John have gotten the majority of the coverage, but I suspect the eventual winner is lurking a couple of spots behind. Witness the lightning fast, consecutive runs Pete Kaiser and Jake Berkowitz have been pulling off.  Both are in their mid-20’s and relatively new to the Iditarod, but they are playing their cards very well, running a brilliant race, and I would definitely be keeping my eye on them if I were one of the leaders right now. Jeff King also looks very well positioned for a push to the front, and veteran mushers with strong finishing kicks such as Ramey Smyth and Ken may still make a late-race surge toward the front.

While I think there will still be some significant changes to the leader board in the next 48 hours, I am really happy to see Aily doing so well.  She is a really great person and I would love to see her add an Iditarod Championship to her Yukon Quest championship. I thought her team looked great coming in to Kaltag based on what I could see from the video. It could be that everything is coming together for her this year and her team is ‘peeking’ just at the right moment. If so, she is in a great position right now, and I am definitely rooting for her. But Aily has had a history of surging to the front in the middle portions of the race (though never this far down the trail) and then fading later. In fact, Aily has never cracked the top 10 in the Iditarod in 11 attempts. So a win for her would be a tremendous achievement. It is definitely worth noting the team she is driving is the team her husband, Alan Moore, almost won the Yukon Quest with. The Yukon Quest is also about ~1000 miles, and he lost that race in a squeaker, with Hugh Neff beating him out by minutes at the end. So Aily clearly is driving both a very talented team, and one that is very trail hardened.

Ken has adjusted his schedule so he has been able to rest in the early morning hours, and through the middle of the afternoon. As I write this, he is in Nulato where he arrived at 1:00pm. I expect him to stay about 3 hours, and then make a giant push in one run to Unalakleet on the coast. That is ~ 120 miles, many of them hilly, and would essentially mean skipping a break. This is a strategy pioneered by Lance Mackey in dramatic style when he pulled off a somewhat surprise victory over Jeff King in 2010. Ken figures that if he does this, he will run through the night and land in Unalakleet around 10am tomorrow morning – which is a great time of day to pull over and rest, just as the day is really warming up. If he does this, he will essentially skip a rest break. However, at this point in the race he can likely get away with this as he has carefully set up his team for long runs at the end of the race. As a matter of fact, if he goes with his ‘A’ plan, he will only rest 2 more times between Nulato and White Mountain – once in Unalakleet, and once in Koyuk. He plans to bypass Kaltag, Shaktoolik, and Elim and make a series of three very long runs to leapfrog over any faltering front runners. It’s a nail-biter strategy for those cheering for him, but it has served him well in the past. Or at least vaulted him to his two 4th place finishes in 2008 and 2010. Incidentally, it would not surprise me if this is exactly what Dallas tries, and possibly even Jeff along with some of the other teams currently resting in Nulato.

Entry No. 10 – Sunday, March 11

Many teams are still in contention to win

10 a.m.

Like many hard-core Iditarod fans, I could not resist getting up a couple of times in the middle of the night and checking on the progress of teams as they traveled overland to the coast. This is a tough, long haul – quite hilly in some sections – and can seem to go on forever. At night, the beacon from the Unalakleet airport is visible from about 20 miles out and it seems to never get closer. Hallucinations and falling asleep at the runners are definitely par for the course for a lot of teams on this stretch. Many teams have sit down sleds, a designed pioneered by Jeff King, and may actually be able to take a very brief cat nap. The problem is that the dogs inherently know when you fall asleep at the wheel, and slow down dramatically if they know you are not participating.

I was particularly interested in seeing if Ken would go through Kaltag, which he did. The only other team in the top 15 or so to do this was Michelle Philips, which surprised me a bit. I was also curious to see how much of a lead the speedsters holed up in Kaltag would give Ken and others before beginning their pursuit. The answer: about 1-1/2 hours. As far as I can tell, Jake Berkowitz, Pete Kaiser, and Ray Redington Jr have been traveling more or less together for the last couple hundred miles and swamping leadership duties while setting a blistering, trail-eating pace. While I am sure this convoy was not a planned strategy for any of them, when teams are well matched it can be a huge advantage to travel together and I think this is a text book example how this strategy can work. Whichever team feels the most spunky on any given stretch assumes temporary leadership duties, and the following teams have to exert much less mental energy in drafting behind the lead team than they would in setting the pace themselves. This allows them to rest a bit and conserve their mental energy for when they are asked to set the pace. All of this is completely within the rules and, at least in my mind, still puts them in contention if they are willing to cut rest stops on the coast. These guys might be young, but they are savvy. There are interviews with Jake where he claims he is racing for a spot in ‘the top 10’, and does not ‘feel he is in contention for a win’. That is simply not true, and I think he knows that but does not want to admit to it publically. In fact, depending on what Aily, Dallas, John, and Aaron do (in terms of cutting rest), I would argue everyone in the top 10 is still theoretically in contention, at least the top 10 arriving in Unalakleet. This makes the 2012 race the most hotly contested race in Unalakleet that I can recall.

 

On to Ken: In 2010, Ken went through Kaltag and rested at the Old Woman cabin on the way to Unalakleet for about 4 hours, arrived in Unalakleet around 1:30pm, and then ran part of the way to Shaktoolik, pulling over for a couple of hours on the side of the trail for a brief rest. He then ran all the way to Koyuk, took a 5 hour break, ran through Elim to White Mountain, and eventually went on to finish in 4th place. Since it all played out perfectly, it looked like a pretty masterful strategic move and launched him ahead of many teams. In reality, it was the only card he had left to play since his team was solid but not moving particularly fast. It looks like he might be setting himself up similarly this year. He pulled over at the Old Woman Cabin at 7:20am, just after the speedy trio of Jake, Pete, and Ray Jr. caught him. As of 9:40am, he has not left yet. He has run all the way from Nulato to this point, totaling almost 14 hours running. Between Old Woman and Koyuk, judging on his current speed, it will take him a bit over 4 hours to reach Unalakleet, and then from there 14 hours to get to Koyuk. Shaktoolik is in between, but it is not a great place to rest – very exposed, always windy. He told me he had managed to find a little knoll to camp in before Shaktoolik in 2010, and while not ideal, it was at least out of the wind. The advantage last time was that it caught the teams racing against him a bit off guard since it an unorthodox move, so by the time they realized what he was up to he had eked out a slim advantage coming into White Mountain.

 

Oh, and by the way, it would not surprise me if Jeff King is thinking along these same lines. He is camped about 11 miles short of Unalakleet. If he gets a jump on the leaders out of Unk and runs straight to Koyuk, it could be hard to catch him. I am guessing this is the move he has been waiting to make. I know Jeff hates skipping checkpoints of the coast but the reality is you have to if you want to win. Speed is not enough on the last stretch. It takes guts, a bomb-proof team, and a healthy dose of luck.

Entry No. 11 – Monday, March 12

Teams centered on Koyuk

1:30 p.m.

I am writing this update from the Nome Iditarod headquarters. It’s fun to be here and the sense of excitement is quite palpable, since there is a high likelihood that a new Iditarod Champion will be crowned some time tomorrow. Many of the volunteers here are women who have come from outside the state to participate in and help with the race logistics, and they are all shamelessly and vocally cheering for Aily. I am a little less vocal about it, but I am definitely pulling for her. We were rookies together in the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod, and she is a really nice person and would make a fantastic ambassador for the race and the sport. Plus, it’s been 22 years since a woman last won the Iditarod, back when Susan Butcher won the last of her 4 championships in 1990. That’s the year I graduated from High School, so it’s definitely been a lengthy drought. Given that Aily has largely closed the gap between them enroute to Elim, I would dispute pundit claims that Dallas is in the driver’s seat. Aily can draft off him for a while, but eventually it would be nice if she could pass him and pull away a bit. It will be tricky to do this, though, as whoever is trailing will want to stick to the leading team like glue. Under these circumstances, even a quick stop for a snack takes preparation and thought to be as efficient and quick as possible. The days of leisurely solitary travel are definitely well behind these two – and it looks like while they have the trail to themselves, it may be an epic battle between them to the finish.

Trailing Dallas and Aily is Aaron Burmeister, but Aaron has the toughest closing musher in the field – possibly of all time – hunting him down. That would be last years’ 2nd place finisher, Ramey Smyth – another all around great guy who I know Ken has immense respect for. Ramey and his wife Becca have a young family just like we do, and we have made a habit of sharing a meal in Nome after the finish to catch up with one another. Hopefully we can continue that tradition this year. An hour behind Ramey are Mitch Seavey and Pete Kaiser. I think the finish is a bit anti-climactic at this point for Mitch and I can’t imagine him launching a major offensive. He can take some comfort in his fact that his son might very well be following in his footsteps as only the second father/son pair to have both won the Iditarod. If not this year, someday. Someday soon, I think. Dallas is a very talented musher and fierce competitor. Pete, departing with Mitch from Koyuk, is another matter. Part of a renaissance of village mushers, Pete is from Bethel, is only 25 years old, and is highly talented. Possibly the only person left on the trail that could threaten to catch Ramey in a sprint to the finish is Pete.

That leaves John Baker, Ray Redington Jr, and Ken (just arrived) in Koyuk. For John, once a second win was not within reach, the sense of urgency to race hard has probably dissipated. He seems content to take a lengthy break, and will probably not challenge the young(er) guns out in front of him to a race. Prize money is not a major motivating force for John as it is for the younger teams around him. Next on the trail is Ray Redington Jr. Ray is the grandson of the founder of the race, and similar to Ramey and Ken, and Aaron Burmeister, has a young family to support. His wife is an engineer with Alyeska (the Alaska Pipeline Company) but is also a former musher, having met Ray when they were competitors in the Junior Iditarod many years ago. If he maintains 8thplace or improves on it (I would pick him to finish 7th ahead of John), this will be one of his highest finishes in many, many years of competition.

Ken has managed to eke out a slim 1-hour lead over a fast group coming up from behind. He managed this by running straight through Shaktoolik from Unalakleet. He and Mike Williams Jr (from Akiak) were the only teams in the top 15 to bypass Shaktoolik and then run straight to Koyuk. Both will need a significant rest to make up for the ~14 hours on the trail, but I think Ken will vigilantly guard his slight advantage and could try to make a break for it in a few hours once the trailing mushers are safely settled down for a break. Once you get to White Mountain, there is a mandatory 8 hour break, and so the most fiercely contested stretch is actually coming in to White Mountain. After a leisurely 8 hour rest, teams often recover some of their speed, making it more difficult to pass on the way to the finish in Nome. The exception is if you have a really speedy team, or your last name is Smyth (Ramey and his brother Cim have won the award for fastest team from Saftey to Nome more times that you can count. It should be called the Smyth memorial award.)

I spoke to Ken briefly in Unalakleet last night. He was disappointed in his position, to be sure, but was still focused on a top 10 finish and happy with his team. He outlined a number of mistakes he had made in the last couple of days for me. The main one was totally miscalculating the temperature projections for the coast and throwing away his cold weather plastic in Nulato and replacing it with warm weather plastic. He said his sled was unbelievably slow and the runners were just grating against the snow. When he camped at Old Woman, the thermometer on his sled read -55F (though he allows at those temperatures, it has tended to be off a few degrees and it was probably closer to -40F). In any case, not weather to be using yellow plastic. He was actually contemplating waiting for Gerry Willomitzer in Unalakleet because Gerry had an extra set of plastic waiting there and was willing to loan it to Ken. It looks like he ultimately decided to press on without it. Now he is in Koyuk, where he is probably happy to take a break of a few hours in the chilly afternoon sun. He’ll try to stay as late into the afternoon as he can without ceding any advantage to those coming behind. The four that could immediately threaten his top-10 position are two young mushers with fast teams and nothing to lose – Mike Williams Jr and Sigrid Ekran – and two very veteran mushers Deedee Jonrowe and Sonny Linder.  Assuming Ken stays in Koyuk for 4 hours and runs through Elim, he should arrive in White Mountain around 8am tomorrow morning. I am going to rent a snow machine and head up the trail in the morning.

I’d like to thank one of our dog sponsors this year, Dick Benoit from Reno Nevada. This is the 5th year Dick has been a lead dog sponsor, and in the tradition of sponsoring speedy females, he is sponsoring one of Ken’s main leaders, Grace. Grace has been leading Ken for most of the race at age 2, and is out of Kinga and Egil Ellis’ famous sprint dog Mike. Thanks to Dick for his long-standing support of our kennel.

Iditarod musher Ken Anderson departs on the first leg of the 40th running of the Iditarod. (Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class David Mosley)

 

Veteran sled-dog racer Ken Anderson, a Forest Lake native, is taking part in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race for the 12th year. The field of 66 took off from Willow, AK on Sunday, March 4. Anderson, the son of Henry and Betty Anderson of Forest Lake, placed a career-best fourth in the 2008 race and finished ninth last winter. This year’s race follows the northern route for 975 miles to Nome.

Anderson’s wife, Gwen Holdmann, updates friends and fans on his progress through an online blog during the famous race. The entries will be posted below as the Iditarod goes on. For more information on Anderson, see his Web site at www.windycreekkennel.com.

Entry No. 1 – Sunday, March 4

Teams leave from Willow under beautiful clear skies

After a fun day at the ceremonial start and a somewhat late night making final preparations, we are headed to Willow for the restart of the 2012 Iditarod this morning. I know Ken is very eager to get out on the trail. He has been working very hard for months to get the dogs and himself into the best shape possible to compete. After literally thousands of miles training, this is probably one of the strongest teams – if not the strongest team – he has ever brought to the starting line. Here are some facts about Ken’s team this year:

  • Of the 16 dogs he is starting with, 12 are males and 4 females (there have been years where this ratio has been reversed and he has had mostly females in his team).
  • The average weight of his dogs is about 65 pounds, which is a bit heavier than in the past. This is partially because he has so many males in the team this year.
  • Of the 16 dogs, 13 run in lead. Ken expects to switch around leaders quite a bit on the trail this year and does not really have any particular standouts.
  • The age of Ken’s dogs ranges from 3 to 6 years, which are considered prime racing ages for sled dogs. He has no particularly young or old dogs in the team.
  • 14 of his 16 dogs are veterans of the Iditarod race, and a majority of those have seen the finish line at least once.

The ceremonial start yesterday went off more or less without a hitch. If you would like to see some pictures, there are some great shots posted on the Coast Guard website at http://www.d17.uscgnews.com/go/doc/780/474403/. The dogs all wore their traditional Red Paw Feed dog coats to honor one of our two main sponsors, which I noticed raised quite a few comments from the crowd.  The coats are fairly ingenious as they are sewn from real dog food bags. Red Paw has been sponsoring Ken for over a decade, ever since he decided the then-fledgling company had the best product on the market, and he and Red Paw have grown together over the years.

Gwen Holdmann, wife of Iditarod musher Ken Anderson, holds one of Anderson’s sled dogs prior to the March 3 ceremonial start to the race in Anchorage, AK. (U.S Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class David Mosley)

Ken and I particularly appreciated all the help and support from the Coast Guard, who have become true partners with Ken both on the race trail and through his educational program for the past three years. This year, Captain Buddy Custard, Chief of Staff for the Alaska Coast Guard drove Ken’s drag sled. We enjoyed getting to know him and his wonderful wife Trish, who just happens to be a children’s author who writes books about dogs!

Ken’s Iditarider hailed from Ken’s home town of Forest Lake, Minnesota and so they had much in common to chat about. Ken’s parents were also able to fly in late Friday night for the start from Minnesota, which was a nice surprise for us. However, we missed Glenn Blantz and his family and friends who have come up almost every year from Pennsylvania. We also missed Daryl and Pam Verfaillie, who have become good friends through our involvement with the Coast Guard but have been transferred to the Great Lakes Region.

Also missing from the start this year are our three children, Leif, Marais, and Lily, who I dropped off with my parents in Rockford, Illinois earlier in the week. They are going to stay with Oma and Opa through the end of the race, where they will be spoiled completely rotten (as grandparents have a right to do). They have a great relationship with my parents and were very excited when I flew down with them, but it’s the longest I’ve ever been away from the kids and I have to admit it’s a little tough.

After the restart, I will be driving with Ken’s parents back to Anchorage, and then flying back up to Fairbanks late tomorrow night. I will try to write another update at the airport or when I get back to the house.

Entry No. 2 – Monday, March 5

Different strategies start to appear as mushers head toward Rainy Pass

I have decided the motto for this year is ‘anything goes’. In the past, I have tended toward predictions such as guessing that mushers running in the front of the pack early on would not be able to maintain their pace, but one of the exciting things is to see how many variations on different strategies have been tried – with varying success – over the past several years. This year, the weather and trail conditions will add an additional wild card to the strategy game. In a week from now, we will be looking back on these first few runs and analyzing how the front runner set themselves up for a successful race during these early stages. With the benefit of hindsight, the top teams will look like geniuses. However, luck also can play a big part. With all the snow on this side of the Alaska Range and more in the forecast, it can become a definite factor, particularly if it starts moving. Blowing snow in the Rainy Pass area would be almost impossible to keep broken out, and new snow could impact mushers coming behind to a greater degree than the front runners.

Last night, Ken had second slowest time in top 50 to Yentna, averaging 6.87 mph according to the Ion Earth tracker. Only Jake Berkowitz, who is a very savvy up and coming young musher, had a slower time. Bruce Linton, Zoya Denure, Ray Redington Jr, and Jodi Bailey had the fastest times – all over 8 mph on average. One thing I am curious about is how the Ion Earth system is calculating the average run speeds. The ‘trail’ as displayed on the tracker screen looks like a series of straight lines approximating (not very closely) the actual trail the mushers are traveling on. I assume they are calculating run speeds based on the actual data recorded from individual trackers and not correlating them to this estimated route (which could result in significant under-estimates). On the other hand, the average speeds posted on the Iditarod site are based on published mileage and can be wildly inaccurate since the trail varies from year to year. For example, teams that averaged 7-8 mph yesterday enroute to Yentna subsequently appear to be averaging 11-12 mph going to Skwentna. That is definitely not the case – teams don’t dramatically slow down or speed up unless the terrain changes. I think the true average lies somewhere in between.

After poking along, Ken left Skwentna in 10th place, which looks great but is more of a factor showing the different strategies already arising. Expect teams to leapfrog between here and their 24 hour layover (most popularly taken in Takotna). Several top mushers ran straight to Skwenta, taking a little over 7 hours and then resting about 4. This includes Lance Mackey, Ray Reddington Jr, Aily Zirkle, and basically anyone who took a decent break in Skwentna and is considered a contender. The other strategy is to break up the run to Rainy Pass into 3 legs, and keep them each under 6 hours running. These mushers are largely resting out of checkpoints, and it is difficult to gauge exactly how long they are running and resting. This is probably the more conservative strategy and Ken definitely falls in this camp. He stopped somewhere just past Onestone Lake in the very early morning hours and camped for about 4 hours. Now he will run through Finger Lake to Rainy Pass before taking his next break. I can tell you that Ken is paying very little, if any, attention to the teams around him. He is very good at focusing on his own dogs and strategy, and will be doing what he thinks it takes to get to the coast in the shortest amount of time possible. He is good at putting on blinders and being completely unfazed or influenced by what other mushers are doing.

Entry No. 3 – Monday, March 5

Teams head for ‘The Burn’

8:50pm AK Standard Time

As I write this, the leaders are into Rohn – a tiny and very remote log cabin nestled on the north side of the Alaska Range that sees frantic activity for a very few days of the year when the Iditarod comes through. From the reports I have been listening to, the trail has been near-perfect, at least to Rainy Pass. However, this is about to change. The north side of the range has significantly less snow and at least a couple of days ago, indications were that snow levels in ‘The Burn’, a desolate section between Rohn and Nikolai, was about an inch, with plenty of stretches of glare ice for teams to skate over. It’s been 11 years since I ran the Iditarod, but the year I did there was similarly no snow on this stretch which made negotiating the trail a bit challenging to say the least.

Sometimes people who are not that familiar with dog mushing are surprised the race goes over bare ground. A sled will more or less go over anything, although both sleds and runners take a beating if there is no snow. The dogs actually seem to like it, since they have better traction. And since dogs seem to sense (and get a kick out of) the fact that the musher has a limited ability to brake without good snowpack, they like to play crack the whip a bit. Or maybe that is just my suspicion, because the trip through this snowless section still stands out in my mind 11 years later. I made it through OK due more to luck than talent, but Ken has broken his sled on this stretch twice. The first time he broke his handlebar and the second time he went over a stump that took out all the cross pieces under his sled bed. After the second incident, he had to return to Rohn for repairs, which cost him quite a bit of time and ultimately knocked him out of the top 10 that year.

Whatever conditions the mushers find enroute to Nikolai, this is undoubtedly a critical strategic leg of the race. For most of the top teams, the strategy they have employed leading up to Rohn has been intended to set them up for this stretch. Key factors include the time of day and the length of run. An extra variable this year is the fact that with no snow, there are limited options for camping out where the mushers will have access to water or snow to melt for their teams. Fortunately, there are several creeks that have open water. Two that mushers commonly stop at are Tin Creek (a couple hours outside of Rohn), and Sullivan Creek, on the other side of The Burn about 2+ hours before Nikolai.

Ken has dropped behind the leaders a bit, due to a combination of slow runs and fairly lengthy rests – both part of his pre-race strategy. He just left Rainy Pass with Martin Buser after a fairly leisurely 5 hour break. I reviewed my notes from talking with Ken before the start, and he had planned a 4 hour break in Rainy Pass, an hour shorter than what he took. Ken plans to pay very close attention to the time of day he is running and resting. He stressed this several times when I discussed strategy with him prior to the race. Dogs are diurnal, and if they are to get by on minimal rest, he feels they need to be resting when their natural biorhythms dictate they should be. This is in the middle of the afternoon, and late at night. He wants to be running in the evening and early morning hours, which makes his 7:20pm departure from Rainy Pass fairly ideal.

Ken outlined two options he will consider based on his arrival time in Rohn, which will probably be around 11:20pm tonight. If the run from Rainy Pass takes him less than 4 hours, he will push through Rohn and run a couple more hours to Tin Creek. However, he wants to keep his runs at this point in the race no longer than 6 hours. So if he takes longer than 4 hours to reach Rohn – which means that running all the way to Tin Creek (the first place he can get water) will take over 6 hours, he will pull over in Rohn for a break. I am guessing that based on the expected hour of his arrival, he will want to push on a bit further before taking his next break at around 1:30am.

Entry No. 4 – Tuesday, March 6

Teams arrive in Nikolai

2:30 p.m.

One of my favorite activities in years past has been to create a spreadsheet and track run/rest times and ratios both in and outside checkpoints to try and divulge individual mushers’ strengths as well as their strategies. I’ve abandoned that approach this year simply because there are so many extremely competitive teams out there right now, and it is impossible to stay updated on all of them. Nonetheless, I have gone back and looked at a few teams that I was particularly interested in. One mushers that looks well positioned (not surprisingly, given that he in the defending champ) is John Baker. John is very sharp, and is running a very interesting strategy. He consistently took 3 hour breaks (before Skwentna, at Finger Lake and at Rainy Pass) and kept his runs under 6 hours before running straight from Rohn to Nikolai. A contrasting strategy is used by Lance Mackey. Lance completed a 7 hour run to Skwenta, then followed that up with an 8 hours to Rainy Pass with 3:45 and 5:40 minute breaks respectively. Jeff did essentially the same thing but with a tad more rest (5:45 hrs in Skwentna and 5 hrs in Rainy Pass), as did Paul Gebhardt. All of those teams are sitting in the top 8 in Nikolai as I write this, and most will probably run through McGrath and 24 in Takotna.

Ken took a ½ hour break out in The Burn this morning around 8:25am, and arrived in Nikolai about a ½ hour ago in what I estimate to be about 32nd place, although the Iditarod website has not posted his arrival time yet. This puts him into Nikolai about 5 hours behind the rabbit, Aliy Zirkle, and about 3-1/2 hours behind Mitch Seavey, Jeff King, and Paul Gebhardt, who are nicely positioned in 6-8th place. Ken was hoping to arrive in Nikolai 3 hours behind the leaders, so he is a little behind where he hoped to be at this point in the race. Nonetheless, there is plenty of trail left to run on and room to make up lost time – especially if he still has a strong team. Since he took a break on the trail, his run time will not be spectacular but he seemed to be moving along at a steady 7+ mph. From here, I expect him to follow what has been a very common strategy of running to Takotna and taking his 24 hour break there.

For those of you who are interested, there is a nice podcast of Ken giving a pre-race interview available at: http://www.myyukonlife.com/podcasts/episode-53-iditarod-musher-ken-anderson/. Thanks to Jennifer Hawks for posting it.

Entry No. 5 – Wednesday, March 7

Teams settle in for their mandatory break

9 a.m.

As I write this, most of the top half of the race is parked in the tiny town of Takotna, population of about 20. It’s become the undisputed favorite place to take the mandatory 24 hour layover due to a combination of its strategic location and incredible hospitality for such a small and remote town.

Ken arrived at 5:20am in 23rd place. This puts him right at 5 hours behind the leaders, which is a slightly better position than last year when he left Takotna in 22nd place 6 hrs and 35 minutes behind the leaders. I also noticed that Ramey Smyth, who came in 2nd place last year, left Takotna 3 hours and 40 minutes behind the leaders in 14th place, so that proves there is still plenty of time to move up. Both Ramey and Ken moved up 13 places in the standings between Takotna and the finish line last year, Ramey just had a little bit less of a hole to dig out of. This year, Ken and Ramey will be leaving Takotna at almost the exact same time, assuming they both take the layover there. Curiously, Martin Buser will be leaving just slightly behind them. Last year, Martin was the first team into Takotna so either his race is not going as planned, or he has a very different strategy this time around.

As another point of comparison, I looked up Ken’s position in Takotna relative to the leaders in the two years he came in 4th place (2010 and 2008), which are his highest finishes. In 2010 he left just over 3 hours and 15 minutes behind the leaders after 24-ing in Takotna. In 2008, he pushed on to Cripple before taking his 24 hour layover, and was about 10+hours behind the leaders in about 18thplace when he left.

The weather is a very definite extra element this year. There are going to be no records broken as they were last year when the trail was near perfect. The leaders are about 1-1/2 hours behind the pace from last year, and I would expect the infrequently traveled section between Takotna and Ruby to be very slow. This is because the entire interior portion on the state has been hit by substantial snowfall over the past couple of days. In fact, I was not able to get out of my driveway this morning so I may be working from home today. If the Cripple area has anything like the 2 feet of snow I waded through around my house last night, it is going to be a slog. It will be interesting if anyone decided to play the rabbit and head on to Cripple. The trail breakers generally are sent out in front of the first team, so that musher will have some sort of trail, although there may not be much of a base depending on the last time it was broken out. It should drop below 0°F tonight, though, so that would give whatever trail is put in a chance to firm up overnight and it could be pretty decent for the first teams leaving tomorrow. The trail could fall apart again for later teams as the base disintegrates, or it could get even better as more snow is packed down. It’s hard to say, and has a lot to do with the characteristics of the snow and the temperatures. What we have here in Fairbanks is very light fluffy snow that is easy to push around, but if the wind is the element doing the pushing it can quickly form big drifts that can really impact the forward momentum of the dogs.

Here is a cool map showing weather conditions along the Iditarod trail:http://www.wunderground.com/resources/education/Iditarod.asp

Ken did not dismiss the possibility of going on to Cripple himself. If so, he said he would take a 5-6 hour break in Takotna before heading over to Cripple. That would have him leaving in the next hour. Somehow, I doubt he is going to do this as the going has been a bit slow and he has dropped 3 dogs (no word on who those are). I think he and his team are due for a nice long break. If he does take his rest in Takotna, he will be able to leave sometime just after 6am tomorrow morning.

I will leave you with this interesting fact – no mushers have scratched to this point, which is quite unusual. I consider it to be a testament to the ever improving skills of the average team in the race and the fact that the trail appears to have very well put in with a minimum of obstacles. Nice work to everyone involved!

Entry No. 6 – Wednesday, March 7

Ken checks in from Takotna

5:30 p.m.

I just got off the phone with Ken, currently on his 24 hour mandatory layover in Takotna. He sounded very upbeat and positive about things, including his position in the race right now. While he didn’t have any exciting incidents like some other teams have reported, it did sound like it was quite a slog for him. He said he stayed a little longer than planned at Rainy Pass because it was hot, the trail was slow, and he thought his team could use some extra rest. He also said he had a good run to Rohn, but not a very smooth run from Rohn to Nikolai as he got stuck behind some teams that were having minor issues and had to stop quite a bit. He also stopped at the Buffalo Camp (about halfway) to replace booties, change runner plastic, and snack the dogs – all of which took about a ½ hour. On the last stretch, he had to break trail a lot and switched off leadership duties with Sigrid since the trail had blown in and drifted badly behind the first group to go through. He similarly said he had to break a lot of trail out of McGrath. I suspect many of the other teams were in the same boat – this light fluffy snow that we are getting does not pack down easily and just shifts around, especially if there is any wind. So everyone probably felt they were doing more than their fair share of snow plowing.

Ken apparently dropped Bernie in Rohn because he was struggling a bit to keep up.  Ken called Bernie his ‘barometer’ prior to the race, since he is the slowest dog in the team and Ken wanted to keep his speed at a comfortable pace for both him and the rest of the dogs. He also dropped Mr. Big, a dog from our friend Kent Kaltenbacher, who Ken surmised missed his brother Max and wasn’t too into the experience. Max and Mr Big are usually inseparable and reliable, agile wheel dogs but Max just missed the cut. The last dog Ken dropped was Einstein, who just wore himself out working too hard.  Ken actually loaded him in his sled for the last 10 miles into McGrath before dropping him. He felt good about the rest of his team, saying he has been switching dogs around a lot. He has been especially careful not to keep anyone in lead or wheel for too long. He mentioned that Regret and Grace have been doing particularly well in lead (girl power!), and that he has had no major issues other than a few minor wrists that he is managing. Apparently, some of the other teams are coming down with a virus and have issues with diarrhea, but Ken said only a couple of his dogs seem affected.

Overall, Ken said this was by far the slowest trail he has ever seen on the Iditarod, and he thinks it will really shape the later parts of the race. He has been paying very little attention to what is going on around him, and has been very focused on his own team. He plans to run this next part of the race with a close eye on the time of day. He will be able to leave Takotna at around 6:00 am tomorrow morning, and plans to run about 8 hours, and then take a 3-4 hour break before going on to Cripple. Ideally, he would like to stick with that sort of schedule for the next third of the race, stopping in the afternoon and very late night/early mornings without regard to whether that puts him in a checkpoint, or camping out on the trail.

Entry No. 7 – Thursday, March 8

Teams are at the halfway point

9 p.m.

I spent most of the day today judging science projects at a local middle school, so I have only now had the chance to catch up on the race. Thanks to Pam Verfaillie from the Coast Guard (actually, her husband Darryl is a Captain in the USCG) for keeping me updated on Ken’s progress with quick e-mail notes all day.

Ken is marching toward the halfway point of the race in Cripple, along with half of the field. It is almost hypnotic to watch the little squares that represent individual mushers marching down the trail, which is delineated by a red line. I’ve been paying close attention to run speeds over the last hour, at least for the pack around Ken.  Right now, Ken’s tracker shows him at 9.7 mph, which may be the highest speed I have seen him hit although the realist in me recognizes he is probably going downhill or on a stretch of trail where the satellite is not accurately measuring horizontal distance traveled due to uneven terrain. Oops – now he just dropped to 8.1 mph. That seems more realistic, although still a good clip for this point in the race.

According to Joe Runyan’s updates on the Iditarod website that are based on reports from the trail breakers, the trail gets worse the last 25 miles to Cripple, meaning the snow is extremely powdery. Apparently nearly everyone at Cripple is using snowshoes to get around. However, it looks to me as though the trail is finally packing down a bit because the run times of the teams just ahead of Ken are fairly respectable. Standouts in my opinion Jake Berkowitz, who just seems to be flying along, and Pete Kaiser.  Both are young up and coming mushers who have proven themselves as tough competitors with top finishes elsewhere. The mushers in this next wave to hit Cripple will also have (for the most part) rested their team through the hottest part of the afternoon and that could play to their strategic advantage compared to the teams ahead. Ken rested from 1:00 to 4:00 pm, right through the hottest part of the afternoon. I am expecting him into Cripple at about 11:00 pm.

Once Ken gets to Cripple, it will be interesting to see what he does.  I would personally like to see him go another hour or two down the trail, so he can avoid running in the wee early hours of the morning. But I am sure that the checkpoint will look very tempting, and staying there would avoid the need to haul a bunch of food and straw along for a campout. Ken has also undoubtedly been working extremely hard, and the chance to dry out his cloths would be an extra bonus he would get out of staying. Run times in 2010 – the last time the teams came this way – was about 10 hours for the top teams and in 2008 it was not too much faster. Even in a very good year, it will take over 8 hours for most of the top teams. So I think Ken would be well served to run through Cripple a couple hours further down the trail, camp out, and then run in to Ruby and take his 8 hour layover.  We’ll see ….

Entry No. 8 – Friday, March 9

Teams head down the Yukon River

9 p.m.

I have started this update three times today, and each time – by not finishing – most of what I write is outdated by the time my next chance comes around to work on it. To top it off, I got a cryptic voice message from Ken on my cell phone around 3:00pm this afternoon. It turns out he was sitting in the middle of the checkpoint when he called and did not want to reveal any strategic details within earshot of a half-dozen other mushers. I called the number back that he had used, and it belonged to a really nice guy named Jerry. I asked him to PLEASE, if he saw Ken again, have him call me back. Jerry called me again about a half hour later and told me he was pretty sure Ken was sleeping but would pass the message on when he woke up. Ken did call back – eventually – at 8:15pm.

Ken’s original voicemail was fairly comical in its simplicity and typical Ken – low key and understated. Since it’s short, I will include his exact words and then translate based on the conversation we had:

Ken: ‘Hey Gwen, it’s Ken calling from Ruby. Things are going well, things are going fine, the team is kind of coming together and clicking along. They are eating good and I still have all 13 dogs I had on my 24. (getting very quiet) Soooo … I think it might be time to race. I haven’t been paying any attention to anyone else or run times, I have just been doing my own thing. OK – take care – bye.’

Gwen’s Translation (based on my phone conversation with Ken this evening): The team is really starting to gel.  They’ve been a bit disjointed up until now and I have had to switch dogs around a lot, but the girls are really holding their own in front, with Regret, Grace, and Risk sharing most of the leading duties. Regret is the standout so far. The speed has not been too impressive, but it’s not bad, and is improving relative to other teams around me. I have totally kept the blinders on and paid no attention to anyone else or where I am in the standings. I have just paid attention to my team, and my goal is to get to the coast as quickly as possible – not to get to Cripple or Ruby or Galena quickly. The dogs are eating well and are healthy, I am not going to drop anyone in Ruby. I don’t have any question marks in the team right now – everyone is holding their own. It’s been cold at night (well below zero, possibly dropping to -40 on Yukon tonight), but it has seemed extremely hot during the mid-afternoon hours (for those of you living or vacationing in Florida, this is obviously in relative terms). I am planning to try my best to avoid running very late at night or midday if I can possibly avoid it, and that will dictate my strategy for the next couple of days. Since I leave Ruby at 9:30pm (I am taking a mandatory 8 hour layover), I will stop in Galena, arriving at about 4:00am.  I won’t stop long – probably 3-ish hours, and then head to Nulato and stop again for another break around 2:00pm. From Nulato, I might make a really big push through Kaltag and on to the coast, but I’ll also wait and see how things develop.

Ken also said he has hardly seen anyone on the trail, but has been enjoying his competitors in the checkpoints. He specifically mentioned Jake Berkowitz and Pete Kaiser (who he says each have a legitimate chance to challenge for a win based on what he has seen of their teams), along with Ramey Smyth. He also felt the race was still very wide open, and that there was still a chance for someone to come from behind to win. He felt some of the teams at the top might be over playing their cards and would drop back a bit later, but obviously there are a lot of very solid teams. He really marveled at the quality of the teams both in front of and behind him, and commented on how hyper-competitive things have become. There is just no room for an error, or for an extra nap, without dropping several spots. He feels very focused and positive about his team right now. However, keeping ahead of the teams that are currently behind him will be just as challenging as catching some of those ahead.

Entry No. 9 – Saturday, March 10

Teams jockey for position on the Yukon River

3 p.m.

Wow. This has been a very exciting race, and the sheer number of teams still in contention for first place is amazing – the most I can ever recall. It’s hard not to become completely addicted to the Iditarod Insider information, especially the IonEarth tracker. Today is the first day since the start I have not been distracted by work, and I am having a hard time tearing myself away from the computer. I am alternating between watching the race and shoveling our entire driveway by hand (we have a very long driveway and about 18 inches of snow) so we can haul water to the house. We have been forced to park out on the road since the big snow dump we received earlier in the week, and I have not been successful in finding anyone to plow us out. Ken is usually the neighborhood plow guy, but he is a bit busy at the moment and his plow truck is down in Anchorage with our handler, Megan. Fortunately, our neighbor Jimmy brought over his ‘snow scoop’ for me this morning, and even hand shoveled a huge portion of the lower half for me. Thanks Jimmy!

One thing I get frustrated about is how focused the coverage is on the very front of the race. Aily, Dallas, Mitch, and John have gotten the majority of the coverage, but I suspect the eventual winner is lurking a couple of spots behind. Witness the lightning fast, consecutive runs Pete Kaiser and Jake Berkowitz have been pulling off.  Both are in their mid-20’s and relatively new to the Iditarod, but they are playing their cards very well, running a brilliant race, and I would definitely be keeping my eye on them if I were one of the leaders right now. Jeff King also looks very well positioned for a push to the front, and veteran mushers with strong finishing kicks such as Ramey Smyth and Ken may still make a late-race surge toward the front.

While I think there will still be some significant changes to the leader board in the next 48 hours, I am really happy to see Aily doing so well.  She is a really great person and I would love to see her add an Iditarod Championship to her Yukon Quest championship. I thought her team looked great coming in to Kaltag based on what I could see from the video. It could be that everything is coming together for her this year and her team is ‘peeking’ just at the right moment. If so, she is in a great position right now, and I am definitely rooting for her. But Aily has had a history of surging to the front in the middle portions of the race (though never this far down the trail) and then fading later. In fact, Aily has never cracked the top 10 in the Iditarod in 11 attempts. So a win for her would be a tremendous achievement. It is definitely worth noting the team she is driving is the team her husband, Alan Moore, almost won the Yukon Quest with. The Yukon Quest is also about ~1000 miles, and he lost that race in a squeaker, with Hugh Neff beating him out by minutes at the end. So Aily clearly is driving both a very talented team, and one that is very trail hardened.

Ken has adjusted his schedule so he has been able to rest in the early morning hours, and through the middle of the afternoon. As I write this, he is in Nulato where he arrived at 1:00pm. I expect him to stay about 3 hours, and then make a giant push in one run to Unalakleet on the coast. That is ~ 120 miles, many of them hilly, and would essentially mean skipping a break. This is a strategy pioneered by Lance Mackey in dramatic style when he pulled off a somewhat surprise victory over Jeff King in 2010. Ken figures that if he does this, he will run through the night and land in Unalakleet around 10am tomorrow morning – which is a great time of day to pull over and rest, just as the day is really warming up. If he does this, he will essentially skip a rest break. However, at this point in the race he can likely get away with this as he has carefully set up his team for long runs at the end of the race. As a matter of fact, if he goes with his ‘A’ plan, he will only rest 2 more times between Nulato and White Mountain – once in Unalakleet, and once in Koyuk. He plans to bypass Kaltag, Shaktoolik, and Elim and make a series of three very long runs to leapfrog over any faltering front runners. It’s a nail-biter strategy for those cheering for him, but it has served him well in the past. Or at least vaulted him to his two 4th place finishes in 2008 and 2010. Incidentally, it would not surprise me if this is exactly what Dallas tries, and possibly even Jeff along with some of the other teams currently resting in Nulato.

Entry No. 10 – Sunday, March 11

Many teams are still in contention to win

10 a.m.

Like many hard-core Iditarod fans, I could not resist getting up a couple of times in the middle of the night and checking on the progress of teams as they traveled overland to the coast. This is a tough, long haul – quite hilly in some sections – and can seem to go on forever. At night, the beacon from the Unalakleet airport is visible from about 20 miles out and it seems to never get closer. Hallucinations and falling asleep at the runners are definitely par for the course for a lot of teams on this stretch. Many teams have sit down sleds, a designed pioneered by Jeff King, and may actually be able to take a very brief cat nap. The problem is that the dogs inherently know when you fall asleep at the wheel, and slow down dramatically if they know you are not participating.

I was particularly interested in seeing if Ken would go through Kaltag, which he did. The only other team in the top 15 or so to do this was Michelle Philips, which surprised me a bit. I was also curious to see how much of a lead the speedsters holed up in Kaltag would give Ken and others before beginning their pursuit. The answer: about 1-1/2 hours. As far as I can tell, Jake Berkowitz, Pete Kaiser, and Ray Redington Jr have been traveling more or less together for the last couple hundred miles and swamping leadership duties while setting a blistering, trail-eating pace. While I am sure this convoy was not a planned strategy for any of them, when teams are well matched it can be a huge advantage to travel together and I think this is a text book example how this strategy can work. Whichever team feels the most spunky on any given stretch assumes temporary leadership duties, and the following teams have to exert much less mental energy in drafting behind the lead team than they would in setting the pace themselves. This allows them to rest a bit and conserve their mental energy for when they are asked to set the pace. All of this is completely within the rules and, at least in my mind, still puts them in contention if they are willing to cut rest stops on the coast. These guys might be young, but they are savvy. There are interviews with Jake where he claims he is racing for a spot in ‘the top 10’, and does not ‘feel he is in contention for a win’. That is simply not true, and I think he knows that but does not want to admit to it publically. In fact, depending on what Aily, Dallas, John, and Aaron do (in terms of cutting rest), I would argue everyone in the top 10 is still theoretically in contention, at least the top 10 arriving in Unalakleet. This makes the 2012 race the most hotly contested race in Unalakleet that I can recall.

On to Ken: In 2010, Ken went through Kaltag and rested at the Old Woman cabin on the way to Unalakleet for about 4 hours, arrived in Unalakleet around 1:30pm, and then ran part of the way to Shaktoolik, pulling over for a couple of hours on the side of the trail for a brief rest. He then ran all the way to Koyuk, took a 5 hour break, ran through Elim to White Mountain, and eventually went on to finish in 4th place. Since it all played out perfectly, it looked like a pretty masterful strategic move and launched him ahead of many teams. In reality, it was the only card he had left to play since his team was solid but not moving particularly fast. It looks like he might be setting himself up similarly this year. He pulled over at the Old Woman Cabin at 7:20am, just after the speedy trio of Jake, Pete, and Ray Jr. caught him. As of 9:40am, he has not left yet. He has run all the way from Nulato to this point, totaling almost 14 hours running. Between Old Woman and Koyuk, judging on his current speed, it will take him a bit over 4 hours to reach Unalakleet, and then from there 14 hours to get to Koyuk. Shaktoolik is in between, but it is not a great place to rest – very exposed, always windy. He told me he had managed to find a little knoll to camp in before Shaktoolik in 2010, and while not ideal, it was at least out of the wind. The advantage last time was that it caught the teams racing against him a bit off guard since it an unorthodox move, so by the time they realized what he was up to he had eked out a slim advantage coming into White Mountain.

Oh, and by the way, it would not surprise me if Jeff King is thinking along these same lines. He is camped about 11 miles short of Unalakleet. If he gets a jump on the leaders out of Unk and runs straight to Koyuk, it could be hard to catch him. I am guessing this is the move he has been waiting to make. I know Jeff hates skipping checkpoints of the coast but the reality is you have to if you want to win. Speed is not enough on the last stretch. It takes guts, a bomb-proof team, and a healthy dose of luck.

Entry No. 11 – Tuesday, March 13

On to Nome-Ken Projected to arrive at 9:45am AK time today!

I drove a snowmachine out to White Mountain yesterday, beating Ken there by just a few minutes. It was incredibly windy and cold on the way out there – one of those days where you need to constantly adjust your gear to keep from getting frost nipped or worse. Basically, it was a miserable trip for me and it was hard not to feel pretty sorry for the dogs and mushers out in those conditions. I ran into Dallas and Aily (trailing him by a few miles) in the ‘blowhole’ between Topkok and Safety. It is a 20 mile stretch notorious for strong winds blowing from inland out to the coast and kicking up loose snow into trail-obscuring ground blizzards. There were times on the drive out where I could only see one marker ahead of me. Ironically, though, traveling in these conditions is more comfortable on a dog sled than a snow machine, because on a dog sled you can turn and change positions more easily to protect yourself from the direct onslaught. And the dogs are amazing and can handle those conditions without complaint.

White Mountain, in contrast to the coast, is a little oasis 77 miles from Nome. First of all, there are trees – everywhere. They are idyllic stunted Christmas trees sprinkled about picturesquely on all the surrounding hills, giving the community a very inviting look. And it is tucked back off the coast a bit along a river, giving the community some shelter and protection from the winds. So it was quite comfortable place to rest for your final mandatory 8 hour layover before a final run into Nome.

Ken was pretty happy to be in White Mountain. He was starting to analyze what had ‘gone wrong’ with his race, but everyone at the checkpoint – mushers, judges, and longtime volunteers all commented on the incredible high caliber of the entire front half of the race. 10 years ago, there were just 6 or 7 teams realistically competing to win, and now there are about 20 with a shot at it. None of the top 6 teams this year have won an Iditarod before, although both Dallas and Aily are previous Yukon Quest champs. In order to win, everything needs to go your way. A big part is having a dog team that ‘peaks’ just at the right moment (like when you get to the Yukon River), where they seem to have a super-human or super-dog ability to overcome all obstacles and move briskly down the trail despite minimal rest. There are two basic strategies that can win the Iditarod. The first revolves around long, slow runs, and the second is shorter runs with more rest and quicker trail speeds. The teams in the top 10 used both strategies, sometimes switching from one to the other. For example, Ramey Smyth ran a conservative early race before making some very long pushes at the end without exhibiting any blazing speed. But he pulled out a third place finish. Pete Kaiser and Ray Redington, on the other hand, preserved their speed to the finish line and Ray made up an incredible 2 hours over John Baker and Mitch Seavey between Elim and White Mountain.

One of the things Ken mused over as he ate a freeze fried meal of chicken teriyaki with rice is that he thinks he is better suited mentally and physically to play the speed game, rather than the marching game. It will be interesting to see how he plans to adjust his training and strategy for next year based on what he learned.

Ken left the Safety Roadhouse (technically the last checkpoint) at 6:45pm this morning. I stopped at the historic site (currently a bar) at about 9pm last night, just as it was getting dark, to get out of the wind for a bit. Snowmachining in those conditions is a truly miserable experience if you aren’t totally dressed for it, and musher cloths aren’t ideal for a long snowmachine ride. I will admit, I also had a shot of whisky before caravanning back to Nome with the Iditarod insider videographers and arriving back at the headquarters around midnight.

Headquarters I chatted with Ramey Smyth for a bit, who along with our friend Jessie Royer (a previous top 10 finishers sitting out this years’ race), mused over the extreme financial commitment it takes to continue to race. Jessie figured it costs her $30,000 to run the Iditarod, and said she would not race again until she had a full sponsorship lined up. Ramey talked about how difficult it is, not that he and his wife Becca have a second child, for both parents to be involved with racing (welcome to the club, Ramey). Having these conversations made me realize once again how lucky Ken and I are to be able to participate in this sport that we love so much, and the support that we get from so many. Without the support of our sponsors, including our individual dog sponsors like Marielena Uchytil, the Kauffman family, the Easley family, Glenn Blantz, Carol Bruton, and Dick Benoit we could not continue to race in the Iditarod. And our main sponsors such as Redpaw Feeds, the US Coast Guard, Lonewolf Sleds, the Wedgewood Resort, Northern Outfitters, and Lupine Lighting Systems are also critical to our ability to continue to compete. Thanks to all of you for your support, and for following Ken on the 2012 Iditarod!

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