Plettner trains her dogs "to go really far with a lot of small breaks [to play with them and give them a snack] and then a giant break. I never drive them really, really hard for 10 hours. I'm kind of a believer in the long-run, long-rest theory." And she makes sure the breaks set her team's tails a-wagging - literally. "I have a little thing I call the jolly routine. It's just all about making every dog wag his tail. If you feel really good about your job, you don't feel too bad if the boss has you work a couple hours' overtime," she says.
Still, it's Mackey's team that arrives first at Finger Lake, at 6:30 a.m. and after 45 miles of mushing. Eighty-one more teams, most with 16 dogs still running, will pull in throughout the day and into the evening. Races are won and lost at the checkpoints. Some mushers, anxious to find a pace that will serve both the dogs' needs and their own desire to finish well, constantly shift their run-rest strategies. "I judge the dogs on what they look like they're capable of doing that day," says Mackey. "Today I might be able to do a 100-mile run, and if tomorrow they look like they can only do 40, that's what I'll do."
During the early days of the race, it's not the getting ahead that matters much; it's all about helping the dogs settle in to the pace of the race. "The dogs are pretty amped up; they're excited," says Mackey. Some teams stop at Finger Lake to rest and fuel up. Others hand over their race logs for the obligatory vet check and blow on through.
"TEAM ON THE LAKE!"
The yell goes out every time a race volunteer spots a new team emerging from the woods. After leaving the maze of spruce and birch trees, the teams turn left on the trail and skirt the edge of the frozen lake. Though thick skies and low visibility have kept many of the expected day-trippers from flying in by ski plane to watch the racers come in, there are still plenty of people waiting for each musher's arrival, including the volunteers, journalists, and guests staying at Winterlake Lodge, which sits just above the trail. The noise and activity provide a sudden shift from the quiet the teams experience between checkpoints. "You have the sound of the dogs' panting and the sled runners underneath. There's not a whole lot of sound. That's maybe some of the reason we do this sport," says Mackey. "It's so peaceful, and you just have time to think."
Along the way, experienced mushers usually leave the trail watching to their lead dogs. "I'm watching the dogs. I know where I am on the earth, and they know where they are on the earth," says Plettner. "I'm watching them to see if their gait changes any. A tired dog goes from trotting to loping. I'm watching to see the slightest change in their normal traveling pattern." When something goes awry, it's time to stop and "check their feet, check their boots, give them a massage, move them farther forward in the team, make life better for that animal, and see what happens. If they don't come out of it, they're going home."
The snow around the lake is deep and soft. While most of the Iditarod trail has been packed down by snowmobiles, including those used by competitors of the Tesoro Iron Dog snowmobile race two weeks earlier, the trail around the lake is cut fresh for the Iditarod. "You really don't want the dogs falling through these nasty, punchy soft trails. It doesn't take very long before the teams break through and they're wallowing in sugar out there," says Plettner, "but it's the same for everyone, and that's the way it is." Both she and Mackey shrug off the extra challenge. It's not easy going, but "anytime you have snow that time of year and an abundance of it, no less, you have to be pretty happy with it. There are times when there's minimal snow, and it's miserable," says Mackey, who is racing his fifth Iditarod.
To those watching from the checkpoint, it seems that the teams across the lake are moving in slow motion. Piles of snow hide their feet. They look like they're floating forward. The dogs' excitement over hitting a checkpoint overtakes them as they get closer. "They can smell them for miles, smell the smoke, and they know when they're almost there," says Plettner. "They speed right up. Even if your team looks slow, they speed up before they get to a checkpoint." They're all forward motion. At the checkpoint, the mushers dig the metal brake on their sled into the snow - it has more in common with the anchor of a small boat than with the brakes on any other land vehicle.