And they’re off! Iditarod 2018 officially got underway this afternoon, with 67 teams and mushers starting the 1000 mile trek to Nome. For the rest of us, we race home and settle into 8 days of watching the little trackers move infuriatingly slowly and hitting refresh.
Here’s how to ‘watch’ the Iditarod, since it’s not on TV, because there aren’t roads, WIFI, or sometimes even satellite signal where they’re going!
First, get some coffee going. Your sleep deprivation level will rival the mushers’ soon. Second, get a comfortable chair. I think Sebastian Schnuelle coined the ‘Armchair Musher’ moniker, but we all use it now. Fire up the ‘ol computer, and get at least one screen logged into your Iditarod Insider account. http://iditarod.com/insider/
You can survive with just the GPS if you’re really on a budget, but when you factor in that you won’t be leaving the house, won’t be buying Starbucks (coffee pot’s going right?), won’t be eating out, etc. the Insider subscription will actually be saving you money! They’ve clamped down and made it hard to share accounts now too, so you probably can’t scam your mom’s password anymore.
Then you need another screen open to the free Current Standings page. http://iditarod.com/race/2018/standings/. Neither the standings nor the GPS trackers tell the story alone, you need both to understand what’s happening. More on that later.
Next screen is Facebook. I know Facebook is so last year, but Alaska runs at least three years behind the rest of the world. Most of us were disappointed when we opened the Twitter app and realized you don’t get to shoot at or fling the little bird. Many of the kennels have regular updates from their team pages with inside information and stories about their dogs and team. You’re never for sure who’s actually writing each year, but follow as many as you can find. Helen Hegner does a great job compiling the info on the Alaska Mushing News FB page too. Kale Casey Live (Kale was along for ‘the ride’ last spring when we filmed Dallas and Nick racing into Nome. I think he’s hooked now) is always a good place to watch. Idita Support and IditaLive Chat Friends are good groups for those that think they may have a problem, and just need to open up and talk to others, and realize they’re not alone in the world.
Fantasy Iditarod is 4th, (www.fantasymushing.com) you’d better have your team picked by now, you’ll feel like you’re right out there with them, as every runtime, passed team or dropped dog affects your score.
Now you’ve got your information highway down. If someone twitches in rural Alaska, you will know about it. The real problem is figuring out what it all means. If you feel lost with the starting time differential, the mushers taking rests at different places, the mandatory breaks, and the fact that the guy listed in 1st place is never actually winning, you’re not alone. There are only about five people in the world who know what it all means. I’m not sure who the other 4 are. Nobody knows the Iditarod better than me! (Sorry, couldn’t help it, just watched the Trump video ? )
A dead give away for ‘mushing fake news’ is those who make a big deal about where the teams are going to 24. If you hear an ‘expert’ discussing who’s going to go how far to take their 24-hour break, change the channel.
Here’s how it works. The Iditarod is a lot like a human marathon. There is a big difference in the physical ability of the teams. No matter how much you want team A to win, or how nice of a person they are, those dang Kenyans are just too fast. There are only a handful of teams that are capable of a sub 9-day race, much less the now record pace of close to 8 days. The others are spread over the spectrum of time down to about a 13-day pace. Just like a marathon, most racers have a personal time goal, and they’re actually racing against the clock, not each other. And that’s just fine, but as a fan of those teams, you need to be able to recognize how they’re doing beyond what place they’re in. They don’t care, so you shouldn’t either.
What to watch for. a) is the team running within its capabilities. With a 1000 mile event, the first half is just warming up. Teams are trying to get ‘trail hardened’ without doing any damage or falling too far behind. I’m not looking at place, time or position until at least the Yukon River. That’s part of why where they 24 really doesn’t matter beyond being a clue as to how a musher feels about their team. The only real info you can glean in the beginning is when you see a team out of position. When you see a team that’s traditionally placed in the 40s running in 8th, they’re probably going too fast. Conversely, when you see Jeff King decide to stop in Yentna with the rookies, you can deduce he’s either not racing to win this one, or up so some King trick. Either way, your interest level in those tidbits should go up.
Team size. 16 dogs is way too many for anything. It’s so much too many that Mitch and Dallas resort to carrying them because in Mitch’s words ‘I’m scared to have all 16 pulling.’ Team size doesn’t matter as long as they have 10 or more running. Don’t get alarmed when you see teams dropping dogs early, especially at the first checkpoint. Any dog dropped in Yentna was a known weak link before the race, and the musher only started them because the rules said 16. The smaller team size isn’t alone an issue PROVIDED the remaining dogs are healthy. A lot has been made of Nick Petit winning all the mid-distance races, which was an awesome feat. However, the reason he didn’t face much competition in those races is that it takes a toll on a team to race every weekend. It’s why so few horses win the triple crown. Berkowitz wrote a good summary of Nick’s dog situation in the ADN, it’s worth keeping an eye on.
Strategy. At this point, there isn’t much strategy in terms of vs. the competition. It’s all pre-planned. Everyone is running their own schedules, and hoping the team comes together as planned. It’s interesting, but generally, only the outliers are ‘news.’ Come day 4 and 5 we’ll start to know where teams are in relation to each other, and about next weekend we’ll see some actual strategic decisions being made on the fly. I’ll be flying to Unalakleet and snow machining from there with my daughter, we’ll keep you posted.