Monday, February 20, 2017

Iditarod 45: My Top Ten

It's that time again, time for me to pretend I know what I'm talking about and choose the top 10 teams that I think have a shot of winning. I'm going to try and keep it alphabetical again. These choices are strictly my own, I had no outside influence or help. I rarely choose the correct top ten, but have come pretty close.

Aliy Zirkle - She's been knocking at the door for the last few years, and we won't count last year against her. Aliy went through an ordeal that no one should have to go through, and if you aren't cheering for her this year I don't know what your problem is. Aliy's running her kennel's A team once again, and they just came in third on the Yukon Quest (driven by her husband Allen Moore). Zirkle's team looks strong, but she will once again be the weaker link of the team. One has to wonder about her mental toughness returning to the race that nearly cost her everything last year. Perhaps the reroute will be a blessing in disguise for the SPKennel leader.

Dallas Seavey - He broke Rick Swenson's record of being the youngest musher to win the Iditarod. He holds the record for fastest finish. If Dallas wins this year he TIES both Lance Mackey's 4 consecutive wins, AND Rick Swenson's five wins. However, Swenson hit that record in the early 90s, and there have been four 4-time champions since then that can't seem to break that fifth win. Dallas has youth and health on his side, and many armchair mushers pretty much have him winning without even starting the race. I'd actually be very surprised to see him win this year. There's something about that fifth win that is just so illusive. However, if anyone was to crack it, it'd be Dallas. He doesn't seem to believe in pressure.

Jeff King - Speaking of four timers trying to crack into that fifth win... King last won in 2006, but it wasn't from lack of trying. Jeff has come close many times to winning his fifth title. Had it not been for a freak windstorm that blew his team off course and became so violent King had to flag down help so that he could get his team to the safety of the checkpoint of Safety, he'd have won his fifth title in 2014 (Dallas won that one). King was poised to take control of the race last year before his team was viciously attacked by a drunk on a snowmachine. Jeff continued and finished the race, but momentum was lost and a win was out of reach (he did manage to stay in the top 10, however). Hopefully he can tear himself away from posting about how much he can't stand Trump to have another great run on Iditarod.

Jessie Royer - If Royer's not in your top ten, then you haven't been paying attention. The Montana-ite is eating up a lot of trail and gaining on the top contenders consistently year after year. Don't let the hiccup of 15th place last year fool you; Jessie is going to be in the mix. The last time the teams ran this trail (just two years ago) she came in 4th. She had some of the strongest, fastest runs in the Yukon Quest (though she was not the top woman finisher). She's learned tricks from a 4-time Iditarod Champion. Should she pull off a win, it'd be an upset, but she'd also become the first non-Alaskan woman to win. She's got the goods, she could pull it off.

Joar Leifseth Ulsom - Someone tell this dude that life is not a photoshoot! Doesn't matter what angle or who's shooting, chances are you get a nearly GQ photo of this guy on the back of his sled. But he's not just some wannabe pretty boy, he's got the goods. He has quickly made himself known on the Alaska mushing scene. He's serious about his dogs, and he seems to have it all together. His team looked strong in the races he's run this season, and he's consistently improving his standings. He was 6th last year, I expect he'll make a run to get a higher placement this year.

Mitch Seavey - "Da Man" Seavey. His motto is "just mush". When talking with Mitch all you'll ever get is "I'm just going to mush my dogs and see where we end up." That's like hearing a figure skater say "I'm just want to skate my best." It's a PR phrase. It's quoteable. And should the chips fall and you aren't first, well, at least you don't have to eat your words. That being said - do not let him fool you. Mitch is every bit as competitive as his son. He doesn't sit back and "let" anyone beat him. He does run his dogs to the best of THEIR ability, but they only get to the level they are because he is competitive in training and dog care. He's come in second to Dallas twice. He's won this thing twice. 2015 he was on a trail he was unfamiliar with. He knows it now. I don't expect him to not make that push to the front at the right time.

Nicolas Petit - Nicolas has run an aggressive race season this year. He's been aggressive in his race strategy. He nearly won the Tustumena 200, and had control of the Copper River Basin for most of the race before his dogs just had enough of breaking trail. I don't expect him to treat the Iditarod any differently. The question will be, will he push too fast and too hard too soon. He's done that in the past where his race looks very good only to have his team slow far too soon. Teams catch up and pass him. Nicolas seems to genuinely cares for his team, however, so they have yet to truly quit on him. They trust him. He trusts them. If they can make it come together, he can give those multi-champions a run for their money.

Pete Kaiser - He's a three time Kusko Champion. He's got a solid list of race stats. His team does better with wind and cold than those who have been in the warmer temps of South Central. Fans have been waiting to see Pete take a run at the championship for a while now. He has the goods to do it, he just has to make that magic happen. The Kusko is a tough race, Iditarod's just longer.

Ramey Smyth - He's back! After playing Mr. Mom while his wife could run the race, this year Smyth is once again driving the family team to Nome. The Smyth teams are known for their speed, especially in the last leg of the race. In 2012 when Ramey came in third he came out of no where to get there. I was working for the Seavey's then and the family was on their way to Nome when he made his move. I get a call from Dallas' family to ask how the GPS was looking and I said Ramey'd made a move and was gaining. Dead silence on the other end of the line. That's how dangerous a Smyth is to your race. Smyth's brother Cim just won the Tustumena 200 last month doing the same thing. Waiting for that opportune moment. You can't not have a Smyth on your list. They're just too dangerous to forget.

Wade Marrs - Who doesn't love Wade? I mean really! He's another younger musher who has consistently improved over his career. Some "experts" have said this is his year to make a move. Some have even said he's the only one with a real chance to out Dallas, Dallas. I don't know about all that, but he is doing a bang up job of getting attention with his team and driving ability. He's one of my dark horses as I'm just not convinced it's his time just yet, but anything is possible. Anything, especially when one considers the Fairbanks trail is a more equal playing field as no one really has the advantage of having run it over and over and over again learning every bump and turn.

Honorable Mentions:

I nearly put Noah Burmeister on my list, and honestly he probably should be on my top 10. He's another one of those mushers who just knows how to kick it into gear, plus he's got a great family history in this race.

Scott Smith is another musher that's on the rise. He's gained ground in the last couple of years. He cracked the top 10 last year. It will be interesting to see how he does this year. He's another one to watch. It's exciting to see names I don't automatically recognize come to the forefront. Makes me feel like this race is alive and well. Which seeing as how it's the 45th run of the race, that's a good feeling.

Hopefully I get to see all of these faces and more while I'm in Nome!

Which mushers do YOU have in YOUR top 10? Who are you cheering for? Agree/Disagree with my picks? Let me know your thoughts in the comments, and check back as I continue to blog about the 45th running of the Last Great Race!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Snowy finish of the Tustumena 200

A snow storm blew in as the leaders headed out of the Hills and towards the finish line. By the time Cim Smyth pulled in to win, the snow was coming down hard - and got even heavier by the time Nicolas Petit came in a few minutes later. Crazy stuff, made for some great photos, though!

More under the cut!

What a T200 Checkpoint looks like

Okay, I might as well just post the rest of the photos while I'm on my blog, right? These are just highlights. I took far more photos than I want to post here (because I just don't want to bog down the bandwidth). You can view all of them (and then some) on my galleries page ( click here ).

Freddie's Roadhouse is located in the heart of the Caribou Hills (outside of Ninilchik, Alaska). The hills are where the snowmachine (snowmobile for you outsiders) enthusiasts congregate all winter long. The Roadhouse feeds and houses many of these folks. It's central in the trail systems. This includes the mushing trails, and so it's the first and last checkpoint during the race. Good food, warm hospitality, just a great place to meet up and watch the dogs come in.

Mt Redoubt was huge and very visible from Freddies.

Iliamna was also very visible.

More under the cut!

More T200 photos

I apologize to the few readers of this blog who thought I'd have more content by this point in the year. I thought I would, too. I just can't seem to have enough brain power left after an 8 hour work day to sit down and focus on writing blog posts. SO much has happened in different races across the state, and I had all of these plans to at least comment with my own view of happenings. It just hasn't materialized. I was excited about the Quest and then I ended up sick, so I didn't blog (or do anything) last week.

To make up for it, I'm going to share a few more of my photos from the Tustumena 200 run back in January. I shared photos of the Vet Check last time, so this time let's go with the start of the race, shall we? I spent a lot of time photographing the dogs this time around. And, yes, there's once again a LOT of Seavey photos. I can't help myself.

More under the cut!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Tustumena 200 photos

There are so many hours in a day, so the editing has been slow going, but here are a few from the Vet Check for the Tustumena 200 on Friday, January 27, 2017. More are coming... hopefully before Iditarod!

Some of Mitch Seavey's dogs waiting to be looked over by the veterinarians. 

More of Mitch Seavey's dogs.

Someone wasn't too keen on a cold stethoscope.

Cim Smyth's team.

Dave Turner's team.

Another dog from Mitch Seavey's team.

Cim Smyth's dog named Spruce.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Copper Basin 300 dominated by Girl Power!

Ryne Olson of Two Rivers, Alaska at the ReStart of Iditarod 44.
Olson is the first woman to win the Copper Basin 300 in 16 years.
The 2017 Copper Basin 300 has become known as one of the most difficult in race memory - and it hasn't officially ended yet, but a champion has been crowned. Ryne Olson of Two Rivers, Alaska, is the first woman champion in 16 years. Coming in second was Paige Drobny, another newer musher to the scene. Third place looks to be well known veteran of the trails Michelle Phillips. This is believed to be the first time women have taken the top three spots in a well-established mid-distance race (or any dog sled race).

Olson is somewhat of a newcomer to the scene, she's steadily built up her kennel after leaving SP Kennel - run by Aliy Zirkle and Allen Moore - to pursue her goals to become a competitive musher. Not surprisingly, Ryne has taken what she learned from the current top rated female musher and gone the distance. While many believe Nicolas Petit to be the odds on favorite to win, the outcome was not meant to be. Snow storms blew in over the weekend, causing a soft trail which most believed caused the race to slow. Petit's early lead created issues for the team as they were constantly breaking trail, ultimately seeing the team scratch (end the race early). Another well seasoned veteran of mid and long distance racing, Sebastian Schnuelle also scratched today - citing the vehicle collision with his team last month as a big factor in the health and strength of his team. Schnuelle scratched from the CB 300 and has withdrawn from the Iditarod due to his concerns for his team.

The race is not finished, the tracker shows at least 20 teams still headed for the finish line. But for now the victory is seeing a resurgence of lady mushers taking control of one of the toughest races in the competitive season. With less than a month away from the Yukon Quest, and under two months for Iditarod, fans and commentators alike are talking of a girl power fueled championship. This hope may be a tad premature, but it's definitely an exciting conclusion to this year's Copper Basin, and makes things interesting going forward - not just for 2017, but for the years to come. Aliy Zirkle's got company.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Favorite Photos from past Tustumena 200 races

I've only gotten to shoot two T200s since 2012, not because I couldn't make it out there - but because weather caused the race to be cancelled the last three years. Not this year, though, the race is on! We're two weeks away from the Start and I am already planning to shoot both photo and video (hoping to do some live broadcast of the start and finish on my periscope account, so look for that). I'm hoping to take a half day off from work to catch the Vet Check on that Friday as well. Yup. 'Tis the season!

But I want to look back on the two races I was able to capture. Looking back was a nice stroll down memory lane (though the 2013 photos were lacking mainly due to my harddrive crashing before I could edit them all! boooo!). Here are some of my favorites:

One of DeeDee Jonrowe's dogs waits to get hooked up at the start of the 2012 race.

One of my favorite photos I've ever taken - Jeff King and his icy mustache before the race even began in 2012.

Cim Smyth coming in to win the 2012 race. He whistles to his dogs when they hit the home stretch
to let them know they're headed home. Told my dad that they pick up the pace when he does that.

Jeff King was fast on Cim's heels in 2012, but couldn't quite pull off the win, he pulled back as he came to us
and asked if Cim was still ahead of him. 

My friend Bob Parsons at the Vet Check in 2013. Big fan of mushers, and dogs. Gonna miss him this year.

The classic dog in a dog box photo.

Can't lie to me and tell me there isn't a special bond between mushers and their dogs.

In 2013 I was Team Seavey's "paid stalker" (thanks Conway for that title). Mitch won the T200 and then the Iditarod that year.

Mitch Seavey coming in to win the 2013 race. It was Superbowl Sunday and I hadn't been paying attention to the race. The T200 was going to be a "training run" for Team Seavey, he wasn't planning on racing to win. Then his team became the power house it was and he thought "what the heck, let's win this thing". I had to rush from my house to the finish line. My team was playing the big game. I was torn, but the Niners were sucking so I went. And I missed the second half of the game. What I do for these mushers and their dogs. Geez.

I just think this is a really good shot of Mitch.

Family picture at the finish of the T200 in 2013, Conway won the 100 and Mitch the 200. All in the family.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016: A Year In Pictures

2016 has been a rough year on all of us. I am not one of those millenials frozen with fear and sadness over the election (not happy about it, I didn't want either option, but I'm not losing my mind over it). I had a rough personal life this year, Gpa moving in with us and dealing with dementia, the loss of dear friend last January... and oy. Yeah. 2016 wasn't fun.

So I'm looking back at some of the photographic proof that it wasn't "all bad".

Friday, December 2, 2016

Iditarod Roster Set: 5 returning champions among 77 teams

A team dog runs down the chute at the
Start of Iditarod 44. Willow, AK.
Dec 1 marked the deadline for teams to enter the 45th Iditarod race, and 77 mushers answered that call. 5 former champions are in the mix: 4-time champion Martin Buser, 4-time champion Jeff King, 4-time and current champion Dallas Seavey, 2-time champion Mitch Seavey, and 2011's champion John Baker are all going after another win. There are 8 countries represented, most mushers hail from the US (the majority of them represent Alaska); Norway, Sweden, France, Canada, England, Hungary, and the Czech Republic all have teams in the mix. 19 mushers are rookies, making 58 mushers veterans of the 1,000 mile race.

A glance at the list spots many familiar names/faces on the list with names like Zirkle, Sass, Redington, Gebhardt, Jonrowe, among others - but it's interesting to note just how many names are off the list. Four time Iditarod Champion and cancer survivor Lance Mackey signed up back in June, but made the announcement in September that he was unable to run as planned. Cim Smyth also signed up only to later withdraw. Rohn Buser decided not to run this year, and the Busers seem to be downsizing their operation. There's a change of the guard looming, it seems, and this is likely going to be an exciting race for a lot of the newer front runners.

With the change of two rules this year for the race, new strategies may emerge that could bring the change quicker than expected. Iditarod rules now state that mushers can bring cell phones/two way communication out onto the trail. They are to be used to report an emergency only (the thought is if something like last year's attacks happen, the musher can call for help). Some mushers have spoken out against the rule change, worried that some teams will misuse the allowance. The board, however, feels the good outweighs the bad.

The other rule change came with as much if not more outcry - that of the rule that no dogs may be carried in a sled trailer. In the last few years since Jeff King first brought one to the race, mushers have built trailers to pull behind their sled to carry equipment and rest dogs on long runs. Mushers like Dallas Seavey seemed to have perfected the strategy to their advantage, keeping their dogs fresh and ready to run making longer rests in the checkpoint easier to bounce back on. Officials give the reason for the change as dog safety, but those that feel the rule directly affects them don't buy the explanation. Strategies will need to change for March, but don't expect that it will change the standings too much. The trailers are only one small element to a successful race.

There has been SOME good news as of late, however! The last few weeks have brought colder temperatures to South Central Alaska, and with those temps snow! Training is underway all over the state with many teams taking to social media to share photos of a winter sight that was once common place. Sure, there's still a long way to go before trails are ready for races, but should the weather continue to cooperate it looks like for the first time in a long while, the race season will be a full one.

92 days until Iditarod runs through Anchorage - who are you cheering for?

Edited: A late entry bumped the roster list to 77. Mail must've been slow.