Iron Dog completes successful race despite COVID pandemic
Right before launching into the dark from Nome at the Iron Dog halfway point last week, Mike Morgan predicted the race was going to come down to favor those who were saving the equipment and avoiding mechanical failures due to the harsh racing conditions.
And that’s just what happened.
Thirty miles from the finish — after 2,444 miles on the trail — Team 6 Brad George and Robby Schachle took the victory from Team 14, Casey Boylan and Bryan Leslie. Boylan and Leslie were leading but experienced a blown engine, a stalling towing sled and on top of that a broken tow rope.
Hot on the heels of Team 14 was Team 10, Nome’s Mike Morgan and Chris Olds. They had lost an hour and a half after blowing a rear shock in Elim. And Team 49 was not far behind Team 10.
George and Schachle won the 2021 Iron Dog in a time of 50 hours, 26 minutes and four seconds. Team 14 came in second with a time of 50 hours, 58 minutes and 8 seconds. Morgan and Olds finished third with a trail time of 51 hours, 59 minutes and 5 seconds.
The COVID-19 pandemic presented many problems for the race but they were able to find work arounds and run the race with only minor deviations from the traditional format. There was intensive COVID-19 testing of all racers and officials, around 250 tests in all according to Executive Director Mike Visser. The testing and other COVID related measures made the race expensive but the true racing character was preserved, a feat few other sporting events in Alaska have been able to accomplish.
When Robby Schachle and Brad George, who were the fastest into Nome, arrived at the Big Lake finish they thought they were in second place, behind Team 14. What they didn’t know was Team 14, the leaders, had blown an engine and were towing. They took a shortcut near the finish so Schachle and George didn’t see them. Team 6 were surprised to learn at the finish they were the 2021 champions. Out of Puntilla, Team 14 had a lead of nearly 30 minutes. But Mike Morgan’s prediction caught up with the race leaders just 30 miles from victory. After leading into Nome, winners Team 6 had dealt with their own mechanical issues but had made up most of the time by Puntilla. Nome’s Team 23, Jared and Jarvis Miller, were forced to scratch with mechanical problems in Puntilla, just 148 miles into the race.
Two days after the race Mike Morgan told the tale of Team 10’s struggle. “We had a shock go right outside Elim,” he said. “That’s what cost us.” It took an hour and fifteen minutes to find a new shock in Koyuk and swap it for the old one. “We had to find a machine to snag one off of. Then we had to round up a garage and throw the machine in the garage and swap that out real quick.”
“Our friend Roger Nassuk Jr. let us borrow the shock off his machine. I’m in the process of sending his parts back right now,” said Morgan.
“We were going through Skwentna this year and we heard that Team 14 and Team 6 were both having issues,” said Morgan. “So we put the throttle down and just started hauling butt from Skwentna. And we hoped that we’d catch one of them. They were just far enough ahead that we didn’t catch them. We almost had them.”
He thinks Team 14 made a mistake in choosing to take the shortcut, which is part of the race-course. “There was no trail there. They were the first on the track and it was deep snow. They decided to take that trail towing like that and they got stuck in the big swamp before Big Lake. They were stuck for about half an hour and that’s what cost them the race, I think. If they’d just stuck to the normal trail that was all hard pack they wouldn’t have got stuck. I love these guys, they’re awesome. I feel bad for them that they lost the race in the last 20 miles. Those guys will definitely be back. They’re still learning and they learned a lot this year. They’ll take that to next year. They’re a strong Polaris team and we need them.”
The blown shock was the only mechanical problem Team 10 experienced in the race. “We didn’t even change clutches in Nome,” said Morgan. “These machines ran as strong at the finish line as they did at the start. These were probably the most consistent sleds we have had. They ran really good and the only issue was that rear shock. If we’d not done that we would have been right where we needed to be.”
Did Morgan think the addition of the Kotzebue loop had made the race too long? “It’s not necessarily too long,” he said. “If we’d been able to layover anywhere, a lot more of these teams that dropped out would have finished. Besides that, a lot more teams did finish than I thought would.” He felt the high rate of finishers was surprising because they had to run long stretches to make it to the stops Nome, Galena and McGrath. “All these different places that are really far apart that we had to make it to,” he said. He would rather see the Kotzebue loop taken on the way north, before the stopover in Nome. “I think we should go through Kotzebue first, northbound, while everything is still fresh.”
Mike Visser, who was in charge of the race this year, said it was one of the best ever. “The pace was incredible,” he said. “The lead four teams never seemed to separate too much until almost McGrath. So, it was nip and tuck with one through four almost 1900 miles of the race.”
Sixty-six percent of the teams finished, one of the highest rates ever. Normally slightly less than half finish.
Morgan will go back to work but first he’s got to run the Nome-Golovin, a race that was cancelled last year due to COVID-19. He’s coming to Nome with his Polaris 850 and a hunger to win the March 13 race. “The conditions up there are so concrete hard we need some fresh snow for sure,” said Morgan.