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Oyler: Nothing beats grueling Iditarod for thrills and spills

| Wednesday, March 19, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

I have been a sports fan most of my life and have enjoyed watching all the highly publicized events — World Series, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup finals, Kentucky Derby, etc. This year, I got involved in following the Iditarod; it may well be the most interesting of all.

Nine or 10 summers ago, my wife and I had a delightful trip to Alaska. Among many memorable experiences were a number of visits to establishments where sled dogs were bred and trained. Best of all was a visit to Jeff King's “Husky Homestead,” an impressive ranch on the edge of Denali National Park where he breeds and trains sled dogs.

One of our treasured souvenirs of the Alaska trip is a photograph of my wife holding a 5-week-old puppy; we wonder if he became a member of one of King's Iditarod teams.

The Iditarod trail is 1,050 miles long, beginning in Willow, a few miles north of Anchorage, then going west through the Alaska Range to the Bering Sea and Nome.

There are 21 checkpoints, about 50 miles apart. Sixty-nine mushers started the race. Included were three family groups – 30-year-old twin sisters Anna and Kristy Berington; father Mitch Seavey and sons, Dallas and Danny; and the husband and wife team of Allen Moore and Aliy Zirkle.

The backgrounds of the mushers are widely varied. Many of them make their living breeding and training sled dogs and entertaining tourists in the summer. A number of them have college degrees, often in biology; they include a doctor, nurses, and “the mushing mortician,” Scott Janssen.

Janssen made the news this year when he broke his ankle and had to be flown to a hospital in Anchorage.

Strategy plays a big part in a race of this length. Four-time winner Martin Busey decided to play the “hare” this year, starting out very fast and opening up a lead of six hours in the early going. The pack of “tortoises” began to catch him at about the 700 mile mark. He still finished in sixth place, a very respectable showing,

Mushers are required to take two mandatory rests, at their discretion, during the race. One of these is for 24 hours; the other, for eight. This year, two old-timers, Jeff King and Sonny Lindner, waited until well beyond the halfway point to take advantage of the full day's rest, apparently preferring to keep their teams as strong as possible for the finish.

Mushers start with 16 dogs in each team and drop some of them off at one of checkpoints along the trail, usually because a dog has been injured or is ill. Since the trail is rough as well as being very long, the dogs wear booties, often going through three or four sets.

The temperature is frequently 20 degrees or more below zero; consequently the dogs also wear coats, except during “the heat of the day” when the temperature gets above zero. Some of the mushers pull trailer sleds behind them, so they can rest lead dogs occasionally.

When the race began, I started to root for Jeff King, since we had met him. As the race progressed and I began to learn more about each of the contestants I realized that I was really rooting for all of them. There don't appear to be any villains!

When King left White Mountain on Monday afternoon he had an hour lead over Aliy Zirkle and nearly three hours over Dallas Seavey, with only 77 miles between him and Nome. Before reaching the next checkpoint, ironically named Safety, King encountered extremely high winds and “ground blizzards.” One massive gust blasted him and his team far off the trail and into a jumble of driftwood, causing so much damage that he was forced to withdraw from the race.

When Aliy reached Safety, she reported on the nearly impossible conditions and elected to rest her team till the wind dropped down. Two hours later, Dallas Seavey arrived, signed in at the checkpoint, and returned to the trail. Aliy harnessed up her team and set off in pursuit, now 19 minutes behind the leader with only 22 miles to the finish line. She was able to make up 17 minutes, arriving in Nome two minutes behind the first-place finisher.

Two minutes separated first and second place in a 1,000-mile long race that lasted eight and a half days!

Now that the race is over, I “can't wait till next year” and the opportunity to follow, vicariously, these marvelous athletes in this magnificent event.

John Oyler is a columnist for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-343- 1652 or joylerpa@icloud.com.

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