The clock is ticking very slowly tonight as I wait for the Iditarod front-runners to leave Takotna after their mandatory 24 hour layover. I'm not sure we can actually refer to Martin Buser, Lance Mackey, Sebastian Schnuelle or the other 'usual suspects' as front-runners at the moment, as a few intrepid mushers have continued down the trail with plans of taking their long lay-over somewhere else. They may enjoy a few hours, or even a couple of days, up in front of the race, but sooner or later Kelley Griffin, Trent Herbst and Cym Smith have to stop for a full day - they owe the time. When they do I have no doubt that the true front of the pack will steamroll right past them.
The Alaska Daily News has a very interesting story about Zoya DeNure's decision to scratch at Rainy Pass. Zoya was actually beyond the checkpoint when one of her team dogs, a male named Miller, collapsed. When she ran up to him Miller wasn't breathing and had no pulse. After resuscitating Miller she returned to Rainy Pass seeking veterinary care. The vets were unable to determine for sure what had happened to the dog, and Zoya decided to scratch rather than leave him behind in dire straits. "These dogs are like my life. My life is built around these animals. We love them all. It doesn't matter if we've had them one year or 10. I'm responsible for him, I put him on the trail, I have the responsibility of getting him down the trail safely. No way was I going to dump him off and continue with my dogs."
Although the decision knocked her out of the Iditarod, Zoya is already planning to race in the Two Rivers Dog Musher's Association's Chatanika Challenge 200 this coming weekend. "The dogs want to run. They've been training for the Iditarod. A 200-mile race is not gonna faze them," Denure said.
Several of the teams have been suffering from a respiratory virus that's been floating around. "Kennel cough" is caused by several different virus', few of which can be prevented through vaccination. Gerry Willowmitzer and Paul Gebhart have both scratched from the race with relatively large teams, probably because of illness. Sebastian Schnuelle, who came into Takotna in third place with 14 dogs, says his team has been plagued with the disease, which he believes has pretty much run its course.
The current weather forecast is for more of the same. Generally clear skies with seasonally typical temperatures through at least Monday. As the teams leave Ophir they will be entering the longest stretch between check-points of the entire race, about 105 miles to the 'new' Cripple checkpoint at the Poorman air strip. They will be running on a trail that receives very little traffic during winter. Trail breakers have reported deep, soft snow in this section of trail, so it's likely that some of the teams will be running considerably slower than we've seen thus far in the race.
A softer trail is likely to slow Martin Buser down quite a bit. Meanwhile larger teams will have a 'horsepower' advantage making it easier for them to plow through. With the smallest team of the frontrunners Lance Mackey's team may be at a bit of a disadvanatage in this stretch, and we may see him slow a bit. Hugh Neff only has 1 dog more than Lance, and the two men are friends, so it's likely they will travel closely together through this stretch. I think this particular leg of the trail favors Sebastian Schnuelle's team of older and more traditional dogs, so he may move into second place and gain some signficant ground on Mr. Buser.