Iditarod’s mid-pack mushers prepare final pushes to Nome

Katherine Keith tending to her dogs in Kaltag before departing for Unalakleet during the Iditarod. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media)

Iditarod mushers face a grueling next few days.

Not just those fighting tooth-and-nail at the top of the pack but, also, everyone else with competitive ambitions jockeying for spots in the top 10, 20 and 30.

At this point in the race, the leader board is hardly set in stone. At the Kaltag checkpoint, a lot of mid-pack mushers are getting ready to make moves.

This is the fourth Iditarod for Katherine Keith of Kotzebue, but she’s not where she wants to be.

“I had hoped for a top 15 or 20 finish, and that’s such a competitive space, so I’m not sure that that’s what we’ll be looking for, but I haven’t given up yet,” Keith said.

Keith is running her best race yet, with very few mistakes. She overslept once, but just by 20 minutes. And her hands were acting up. The deep cold early along the trail revived frostbite from the Yukon Quest a few weeks ago.

John Baker and Katherine Keith in Kaltag during the Iditarod. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media)

“It slows me down. I have to take more time for doing things that require fine-motor skills, so, I just give myself more time,” Keith said. “Instead of 20 minutes to bootie, I have to give myself 30.”

“Everything’s Velcro,” Keith said. “Velcro’s, like, the worst thing when you have fingertips that aren’t happy.”

Even at the top of her game, Keith was just barely one of the top 20 mushers into Kaltag. She’s down to just 10 dogs heading toward the coast.

At one point, her partner, John Baker, an Iditarod champion, was parked next to her, and she asked him how with such relentless competition he’d ever been able to win.

“It just boggles me. I have no idea how people accomplish it.”

Keith is hoping she’ll be able to maintain an edge once teams start hitting the coast. With its hills and rolling terrain, she thinks her team will be at an advantage over teams that are more accustomed to flat trail.

Others, like Noah Burmeister, have been saving up energy in order to let their teams speed up in the last few 100 miles of the race.

“I’ve been trying to keep ‘em slowed down and takin’ it easy,” Burmeister said. “Saving some for the coast. You gotta save it for the coast. You don’t want to start pushin’ too early.”

John Baker and Katherine Keith talk at the checkpoint in Kaltag in the Iditarod. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media)

Burmeister got 11th place last year. This time around, that’s looking like a long shot.

He’s had some problems with his team and made a mistake early on sticking to his planned strategy instead of trying to push ahead of the pack to get to better trail conditions.

The early cold made for sugary snow, and the trail was churned up more with each passing sled. Like a lot of competitors, Burmeister got slowed down. Now, his aim is to overtake tired teams that pushed too hard getting into the positions where they are now.

“I’d like to climb up another five or 10 places,” Burmeister said. “But we’ll just see what happens with the teams in front, and how hard they’re pushing and if they’re pushing too early.”

Burmeister is hardly the only one hoping a second wind will nudge him up in the leaderboard.

Just a few spots away in the dog lot is Scott Smith, who finished 10th last year. His team’s been fighting a bug. But now, he thinks they’re about to hit their stride.

“I’d say we’re kinda, like, in the building-up end of things, which is good,” Smith said. “I’ve had two or three key dogs in here start to get healthy, which is optimal for hitting the coast. I just want to put myself in a position to pick up the pieces.”

At this point, Smith doesn’t even know which position he’s in, let alone who he might feasibly overtake. But he’s planning a big push.

Not long after we talk, Keith finishes packing her sled, getting ready to go over the long portage from the Yukon River over to the Bering Sea Coast.

As she does, she chats with a different former champion, Joe Runyan.

“Oh, you’re taking a new sled, huh?” “Yeah, I am. Compared to this big old thing.” “Oh, you’ll fly.” “Yeah, I’m excited.” “Ok, have fun.” “Yeah, it’s very cathartic, it’s like ‘I need this! I need this!’”

And with that, Keith and her 10 dogs trotted off toward Unalakleet.