Iditarod Midpoint- Ghosts, Gambles, Snow, and Madness
By: Michael Rogers
It’s the 4th day of racing for the Iditarod at 9:00p and Aliy Zirkle is out in front, pushing through a storm bound for the race’s official midpoint, the Gold Rush era ghost town of Iditarod. Iditarod used to be a bustling gold mining town of 10,000 souls that yielded $35 million in gold in the early twentieth century.
Back in the early 1900s, a winter day in March would have dogs hauling freight to Iditarod and gold back out. Now, the trail to the old ghost town is only used every two years and only for this race. As a result the trail is never packed hard and flat like a snowmachine trail running to and from a populated village. It’s usually a slog over 80 miles of the most desolate section of trail in the whole race.
Rick Swenson, the only 5-time winner of the Iditarod, used to say that everyone jockeys for position to Ophir and then runs the same slow speed to Iditarod. Most of the lead pack has taken shelter for their 24-hour rest in either Ophir or Takotna. Except for Aliy Zirkle. She left Ophir at 8:09 this morning in the face of a building storm and pushed to a plywood shack about 35 miles down the trail known as Don’s Cabin where she rested for the warm afternoon hours. She left there about 6:00p and is currently bound for Iditarod and the GCI Halfway Award, which is $3000 in gold nuggets for the first musher to the checkpoint.
Zirkle is taking a gamble, she’s counting on beating the bulk of the storm into Iditarod and bunking down for her 24 hour rest while the rest of the pack deals with several new inches of dog energy sucking fresh snow that will slow down the teams pursuing her. If she’s right, it will pay off in hours of lead and sapping the strength of strong, fast teams coming down the trail. If she’s wrong, she’ll burn out her dogs and get over-ran in the morning well before her 24 hour rest period is up. The rest of the lead pack is sitting in checkpoints getting fed and rested with an eye on the weather.
Sleep deprivation is also playing on the musher’s minds as well. Lance Mackey and Richie Beattie reported hallucinations on their runs into Nikolai and many of the mushers in the checkpoints are sitting and staring into space as the snow falls, obviously sleep deprived. Nightmares are reportedly common, including not waking up at their alarm and sleeping through the race. Several mushers near the back of the pack are contemplating quitting, “scratching” in mushing language. One is Talkeetna based Anja Radano, she had a nasty fall in the Gorge through a hole in the ice and has cracked ribs and a leg injury. She’s said she’ll make a decision after her 24 hour in McGrath, based on her recovery whether to continue or call it quits.
The first racer to officially scratch is Shaynee Traska. The Michigan based musher finished 48th last year and has already returned four of her dogs at this early point in the race. She also admits that the mental game has her beaten this year, an element many people overlook. One thing that fans of the race forget, competitors generally cannot see where other racers are. While we can log in to the Insider for a minute but minute feed of the GPS trackers or catch news reports about current race events, most of the mushers know very little about who is where. The back of the pack can be a desperately depressing place to be.
To this point, the race weather has been simply wonderful. It’s been warm clear days to sleep in and cold clear nights to run without a lot of wind to contend with. This storm is expected to dump 8-12” of fresh, sugar snow on an already sketchy trail. If the wind kicks up as it passes, visibility will go to nearly zero and leave Aliy far ahead of the lead pack.