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Mush madness hits columnist following Iditarod

| Wednesday, March 25, 2015, 12:01 a.m.

The term “March Madness” was coined by a man named H.V. Porter in 1939 to describe the excitement associated with the Illinois State High School Basketball Tournament, suggesting that Illinois fans were as irrational as hares are in mating season.

It has more recently been applied to the NCAA basketball championship tournament, and, to a certain extent, to several other exciting spectator sporting events occurring each March — major league baseball spring training and the final weeks of the NHL hockey season.

For me, however, it applies to a less highly publicized competition.

My favorite sports event of the year started at 10 a.m. Alaska time on March 9 when 78 men and women and more than 1,200 dogs set off on the 1,000-mile-long Iditarod Trail. Traditionally, the race is run from Willow, Alaska, — about 80 miles north of Anchorage — to Nome. This year, however, the lack of snow on the normal trail forced the event managers to move the starting point north to Fairbanks.

The Iditarod commemorates the 1925 serum run to Nome to deliver antitoxin to children exposed to diphtheria. Twenty teams of mushers in relays covered the 675 miles from Nenana to Nome in 5 12 days, in time to head off a very serious epidemic.

Nenana is the first checkpoint on this year's route, which follows the original trail much more closely than does the traditional, southern route. This is only the second time in 43 years the alternate route was used. It is 979 miles long.

This year I made a modest contribution to the official Iditarod website, which rewarded me by special updates on my favorite mushers.

I chose three competitors whom my wife and I had met 10 summers ago when we visited Alaska — Jeff King, Jessie Royer, and Michele Phillips. Actually it was Michele's husband, Ed Hopkins, whom I met in Carcross in the Yukon Territory.

He just finished third in the 2015 Yukon Quest, another 1,000-mile-long dog sled race, this one from Fairbanks to Whitehorse.

Another favorite was Aliy Zirkle. She finished second each of the past three years.

Last year, she was in first place at the last checkpoint sitting out a severe storm, when the eventual winner, Dallas Seavey, blew right through the checkpoint. She gathered her team together and set out in pursuit but barely failed to catch him in the final 25 miles to Nome.

I continue to be surprised at the absence of coverage of the Iditarod by the national media. Fortunately, the Internet more than makes up for it. I followed the “Armchair Musher” blog, which is written by a former Iditarod participant, Sebastian Schnuelle. He followed the race on a snowmobile from checkpoint to checkpoint, filing updates every hour or two, supplemented by photographs.

In addition, four or five videos each day provided on-the-spot coverage of action at the checkpoints.

Deciding when to take the mandatory 24-hour rest stop is a major strategic decision for the mushers. On other occasions, they may stop as long as they wish at each checkpoint. Many times they preferred to “camp out” along the trail, spreading straw for the dogs and covering them with blankets to fend off the minus 40-degree temperature.

It is natural to speculate on what determines who wins such a grueling contest. The athleticism of the dogs is important, but apparently the strategy of managing them is even more significant. The musher must decide when and for how long they should rest, and the pace at which they should run. What and when they are fed is also important. And, we must not disregard luck — last year's finish is proof of that.

This year, the lead changed numerous times until Dallas Seavey moved into the lead at about the 750-mile mark. He won with a time of eight days, 18 hours, and 13 minutes; and an average speed of 4.60 miles per hour. His father, Mitch Seavey, also a two-time winner, arrived four hours later. Aaron Burmeister and two of my favorites — Royer and Zirkle — were the next three finishers.

I am sad to see this year's Iditarod is over and am already looking forward to Iditarod 2016.

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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