Saturday, March 14, 2009

Who is Really Leading the Pack?

Being sequestered at my place of employment, there is little to do for entertainment other than follow the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and of course plan my own dog mushing activities during my up-coming R&R. I'll write more of my own plans later, no doubt. For now, let's take a look at today's progress in the Last Great Race.

In an interview with Bruce Lee, Lance Mackey (who currently holds a pretty comfortable lead) was asked who he felt are his closest competitors. He named Mitch Seavey and Jeff King, "in that order."

According to the leader board on the Iditarod web site, Seavey is currently in 5th place and King is in 6th. So why would Lance consider them his closest competition? While I can't get into the man's head, I can speculate a bit.

First, we have that pesky 8 hour mandatory layover at a place of the musher's choosing on the Yukon River. Although Sebastian Schnelle and Aaron Burmeister are shown in 2nd and 3rd place, neither has yet completed that layover, so one must add 8 hours to their time to get an accurate feel for their relative position. Sebastian arrived in the Eagle Island checkpoint 4 hours behind Mackey, and Aaron arrived 15 minutes later. Therefore both men would need to gain 12 hours on the leader. That's a lot of time to be making up at this point in the race.

Hugh Neff (currently in fourth) has completed his layover, and arrived in Eagle River 4 hrs and 50 minutes behind Lance. Seavey arrived 5 hours, 9 minutes behind the leader, and King arrived 7 hours and 24 minutes behind the leading team. So, in reality Lance Mackey does indeed lead the race, but Hugh Neff is currently in second place, Mitch Seavey in third and Jeff King in fourth. Both Seavey and King made the run between Grayling and Eagle Island a bit faster than did Lance Mackey. Neff was considerably slower.

In spite of his moral lapse in the Yukon Quest, Neff has been enjoying his best racing performances ever, but he is at a disadvantage now because he has had to drop more dogs at checkpoints than have the others. Lance dropped one dog at Grayling, so left that checkpoint with a string of 15. Seavey came into the checkpoint with 14 dogs and King with 15. Meanwhile, Neff has had to drop a total of 4 dogs, leaving him with 12 coming into Grayling.

In most circumstances the additional dogs don't make much difference. A team of 8 can run just as fast, long and well as can a team with twice as many. Of course, this holds true on a good trail, but if one must break through fresh snow, climb big hills or is running against a strong headwind the extra dog power makes it easier for every animal in the team, including the big hairless primate on the sled. Although I could certainly be wrong, Hugh Neff has surprised me before this year, I believe that Lance was accurate in his assessment and Neff will fall behind.

The I'rod site gives the distance from Eagle Island to Nome as 359 miles. At the pace they've been running, this means the front runners are about 2 1/2 days away from their destination. Mathematically, if the teams maintained their current pace Seavey would gain enough time to pass Mr. Mackey, and King would come pretty darned close.

Both Seavey and King are exceptionally capable mushers and it's still a long way to Nome. A lot can happen out on the river and this race is actually a lot closer than the leaderboard would make it appear.

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