Photo: yksin, Flickr Creative Commons
Correction: I was correct about Baker breaking the record for fastest run, as well as Ramey Smyth, who came in second, also beating the old record, but I was incorrect that Baker was the first Alaska Native to win the race. Emmitt Peters, an Athabaskan Indian, won in 1975. Baker is the first Alaska Native to win since then and is the first Inupiat (a.k.a Eskimo) to win the race.
John Baker is the winner of the 2011 Iditarod dog sled race. It took him only 8 Days 18 Hours 46 Minutes 39 Seconds to complete the 1,082-mile trail, which, if I'm reading the records right, makes his the fastest run in history. I could be wrong on that one. It's very, very close if it's not a record. I also think Baker may be the first Alaska Native to win the race (he's of Inupiat descent). From what I could tell, the guy basically had a perfect run in a race where having any setbacks at any point basically put you out of the running this year. Just ask the winner of the last four years, Lance Mackey, who likely won't even finish in the top ten.
Baker's closest competition was Ramey Smyth, who finished only an hour, 4 minutes, and 10 seconds after Baker. Speaking of the finish time, if I was correct about Baker breaking the record, then Smyth also would have broken the old record, but then from the reports I was reading, the conditions on the trail were extremely good, especially in the first half of the race. I was kind of hoping Smyth would win, or at least gain more ground for a more exciting finish, but he managed to keep it close enough at the end to make my following of the race on Iditarod.com's leader board worth my time.
My sentimental favorite was Trent Herbst, a 4th-grade teacher from Idaho who will be bringing home $3,000 this year for being the first to reach Iditarod, the official halfway point of the race. His position at #1 at that point in the race is a bit misleading as he waited to take his mandatory 24-hour rest there while the racers who were really in the top 10 took their layovers at earlier stops. Still, barring any disasters, he'll end his trip with his best-ever finish. As I write this, he's in 25th place with 171 miles left to go. His best finish before this year was 48th. Also, I LOVE the beard.
Back to Mackey, I'm glad he didn't win. I've got nothing against the guy. No one ever seems to say anything bad about the him (even those who actually follow dog-sled racing) and I have to respect what he's done in the last decade, but it's also nice to see that someone else has a chance. Still, it's a shame to see his run fall apart before he even hit halfway. More than half of his dogs won't even make it to the finish line and he's currently in 16th with only 7 dogs left. (They usually start with 16.) By the way, the dogs aren't dying. Anything that keeps the dog from being able to pull with the other dogs earns them a ride in the sled to the nearest checkpoint and a stay with the checkpoint vets until the rest of the team finishes the race. Most of the time the dogs are just tired or have the dog equivalent of a cold.