As dogs teams drop onto the Yukon River, Iditarod mushers will find out how their race plans are playing out. The next 140 miles of long, flat river will shine some light on who has the most speed and who needs a little more rest.
No one is quite sure exactly what’s going on with race strategies this year. In fact even the most experienced mushers are scratching their heads.
“I realized that I’m probably a better dog training than a dog racer,” four-time champion Martin Buser, who was just waking up from a nap in Ruby, said. “But this team deserves to be raced properly, so that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Clearly exhausted, Buser downs a steaming cup of coffee.
“I just know you have to push so hard and it’s just tough and I’m not into toughness all that much,” he said.
As he talks, Buser pulls at the little finger on his left hand. It’s dislocated, white and swollen. He keeps it wrapped in a spare dog bootie. His feet are bare and his left ankle is purple – also swollen. He sprained it badly somewhere between Rohn and Nikolai.
“The way I look at is we have the toughest individuals in front of us those dogs are so superior to anything else,” he said. “We might as well toughen up buttercup. They are unbelievably strong and tough and willing to give so we might as well give a little bit too.”
Buser is putting all his energy into proving that lots of rest early in the race can pay big dividends later. It’s a strategy Kelly Maixner is also testing with his dogs.
“It seems like they recover a lot better earlier,” Maixner said. “So, say you do a long run at the beginning of a training session, they seem to recover faster at the beginning, so they get back to normal.”
Maixner is running the Iditarod for the fourth time. He’s a pediatric dentist by day. He knew coming into the race he’d surprise a lot of people.
“I’ve had a couple rough years the last couple years,” he said. “I just had injuries and illnesses during the race the last couple years that really bummed me out and this year I trained a lot harder than I ever have and this year I started my own practice so I was able to switch my schedule. I put probably 75 percent more miles on than I have in the past.”
Nicolas Petit is also no stranger to high volume training.
“Considering the lack of snow all over Alaska, basically my dogs haven’t seen a dog house since about New Years,” Petit said. “We’ve just been traveling around using the truck as a home base…training from there.”
Petit’s strategy is to hold a strong steady pace. He doesn’t like to run too fast. But he’s been at the front of the pack since the start. He was surprised to see his run time into Ruby.
“Apparently I got here faster than everybody else and that’s fun, but we were just trotting along,” he laughs.
Petit says he hasn’t looked at another dog team since he left Willow.
“I don’t really look at other people’s teams,” he said. “I just look at mine because it’s enough to worry about when you have 16 animals.”
Mushers will have plenty of time to look around as the head out on the Yukon River. The miles are long and flat for more than 140 miles. Teams are required to take a mandatory eight-hour rest before the get off the river in Kaltag.