Phillips, Willomitzer looking good early at Iditarod: Schnuelle
The 41st edition of the Iditarod is well underway, with the first teams approaching the halfway town of its name sake – Iditarod.
SCENIC TRAVELLING – Tagish musher Michelle Phillips guides her dogs on to the McGrath checkpoint. Photo courtesy of SEBASTIAN SCHNUELLE
ON THE TRAIL OF THE IDITAROD – The 41st edition of the Iditarod is well underway, with the first teams approaching the halfway town of its name sake – Iditarod.
Once a thriving gold rush town, home to more than 1,000 people, it now lies deserted on the banks of the Innoko River, and only sees a flurry of activity biannually – when the sled dog odyssey comes to through on every odd-numbered year.
There are two Yukon teams in this year’s race, currently led by none other than four-time champ Lance Mackey.
The race sees many unconventionally strategies, most notably Martin Buser starting the trip off with a 20-hour nonstop run all the way into Rohn, the trail’s fifth checkpoint, before declaring his 24-hour layover.
Another team, piloted by Matthew Failor, who also runs dogs out of Happy Trails Kennels, did the same move.
Everybody else seemed to apply more traditional strategies, most teams resting in Takotna and some of them in Ophir. Takotna is known for its great hospitality and food, while Ophir is also more or less a ghost town, offering just tent accommodations for the mushers.
Yukoners Gerry Willomitzer and Michelle Phillips are both taking their 24-hour rest in Takotna.
Phillips is running a very well-executed race. She still has all 16 dogs she started the race with. That is an attribute to her superb dog care.
Watching her in Rainy Pass, I could not help but notice how much time she spent with her team before getting some rest herself.
While talking to Phillips, she pointed out that she massages each and every foot of her canine athletes every time she stops. That is 64 feet. Even if she spends only 30 seconds doing each foot, that is half an hour of time. She also massaged each shoulder of her dogs, another half hour gone.
Moreso, her preparation begins very early, in the summer months at home. Unlike most other mushers, she does not buy the massage oils, she is making them herself. While naturally being a bit secretive about what is in them, there was a strong smell of rosemary in the air.
Phillips also bakes her own dog treats, and all of this meticulous preparations shows in her performance. Her clearly-stated goal is a top-10 finish and that is no small feat in a field full of mushing stars.
There is close to that many champions in this race, many of them multiple winners like Buser, Mackey, and Jeff King – who are all tied with four wins apiece.
Phillips will have tough competition also from other women in the sport, with fan-favourite Aliy Zirkle trying to notch her first win and DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow, Alaska who is also a top contender each year.
The current warm weather is in favor of Jessie Royer who trained in Montana all winter, where it is much warmer. It currently is above freezing in McGrath and is supposed to get even warmer in the Yukon Valley with temperatures of 5 C in the forecast for Friday. This means mushers need to avoid daytime running and do most of their traveling at night.
The second Yukon team run by Willomitzer is also resting in Takotna, currently in 20th place, and still driving 15 dogs.
– Sebastian Schnuelle is a retired musher, and former Iditarod racer. He is also a Yukon Quest champion.
By SEBASTIAN SCHNUELLE
Special to the Star