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Mushers Mull Their Final Strategies as Time Runs Out

Koyuk, AK - The top teams in this year’s Iditarod likely won’t be decided until they cross under the burled arch in Nome.  That’s because teams have spent the last quarter of the race, if not the last 900 miles leap frogging each other as they travel down the trail.  It’s only a matter of time before the race shakes out.

For a brief time in this year’s Iditarod, all eyes were on Aaron Burmeister’s team.  But the dogs caught a bug near Eagle Island and the Nome musher had to rethink his race plan. “It’s very frustrating because we came the race to win the Iditarod and with a team capable of winning the Iditarod," says Burmeister.  "Just to be hammered with one little bug after another, it’s part of racing, it’s something we deal with, but it’s hard to swallow you know when your hopes are so high and the team is so strong.” Burmeister admits time is running out with only a few checkpoints left before the finish line in Nome, but, he says it’s not impossible. “There’s a few teams ahead of us that potentially we can pick off if I can get the dogs healthy on these next couple runs," he says.

Jake Berkowitz’s dogs also caught the stomach bug that’s going around.  He was extremely concerned about his team when he rolled into Unalakleet.  He also completely reworked his race plan.
“I’m not letting another pack catch us.  We’re solidly in the top ten, but I really want to keep this group of 15 together," he explains.  "If I drop one or two here or there, but a nice big group to the finish line.”

Berkowitz is the only musher at the front of the pack to have a team as big.  That has both mushers and spectators scratching their heads.  But the Big Lake musher’s goal is to build long-term careers for his dogs, not to win a single Iditarod. “Everyone has different goals.  My goal right now is to finish with a big string of dogs in the top ten.  It’s not all about finishing one spot higher.  There’s other factors at plan and our factor right now is we still have some young dogs and instead of racing really hard and finishing with eight dogs, that doesn’t benefit me in the future.”

Dogs have changed things up for rookie Joar Lleifseth Ulsom. “Yeah, I’m very, very surprised.  They’re doing much better than I thought and I’m very happy with each individual dog in the team.”

Lleifseth Ulsom was hoping to finish in the top twenty this year.  Unless something goes awry, he’s likely to claim Rookie of the Year and a top ten finish.  The Norwegian says the biggest surprise is due to his inexperience.  His team is surrounded by well-seasoned Iditarod veterans. “Especially now, when we’re getting further in the race and a little bit tired and stuff, it’s hard for me to figure out what’s going on.  I’m not awake enough to figure out what they’re doing.”

Fairbanks-area musher Ken Anderson hadn’t given the next series of runs much thought, but pulling into Koyuk in eleventh place did motivate him to think about trying to move up. He fell behind on the Yukon River after coming down with a head cold. " I started coughing and then I overslept by like seven hours which in hindsight was probably a good thing," he says.  Anderson is the only member of his team to get sick.  He says his dogs have been healthy for the entire run from Willow. But, he says, he knows enough to be careful if he does decide to make a move."You can't screw one little thing up or there's like six teams ready to capitalize on it.  I think a lot of it boils down to a little bit of luck,"  he says. 

When teams reach Koyuk, there are less than 100 miles left before they take their mandatory eight hour rest in White Mountain, 77 miles outside the finish line.  Mushers can break this stretch of trail into two or three shorter runs.  It’s too long and likely too late in the game for most mushers to try and do it all in one shot. But this year, it seems, almost anything can happen to shake up the race.