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Iditarod 'dad' in tune with son's progress in race

The only way into many of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race's remote checkpoints is by dogsled, snowmobile or airplane.

So it is that Vern Schroeder has flown home between the start and finish of the race that his son, Nathan Schroeder, has become so fond of running with his team of Alaskan huskies.

"There's no inland road system at all," said the 59-year-old Vern, of Warba. "You'd have to fly to each checkpoint which would be very expensive."

Villagers at Takotna, the checkpoint Schroeder reached on Wednesday morning, are noted for baking and doling out pies, making it a strong consideration for mushers wanting to soak up their mandatory 24-hour rest period.

With the race a third over, Vern was expecting his son to take the rest at any time.

Schroeder, 38, has been running with the top 35 racers throughout the early stages of the 975-mile journey from Anchorage to Nome. Eighty-five racers started the Iditarod.

Vern said his son's Iditarod plan was essentially an expansion of a strategy he used in winning a fourth John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon title in Duluth in February — rest early and often before bringing home the dogs in a blitz down the homestretch.

"He's had trouble once he gets to Unalakleet," later in the race, Vern said. "He hasn't been able to push his dogs the last couple hundred miles. He wants to make sure they have enough in reserve to make a good push."

To that end Schroeder backed off on training following the Beargrease, Vern said, allowing the dogs to take it easy on short runs that left them itching to race.

So far, the team is holding up well in what Vern observed was an unseasonably warm Iditarod on a historic pace.

"If things don't change there's going to be a new record," he said.

Four-time champion Jeff King and defending and three-time champion Dallas Seavey were clipping along at more than 9 mph. They'd come into Takotna and gone by the time Schroeder checked in, running in 26th place and still having all 16 of his dogs.

"He's running with the best out there and he's not intimidated by them," Vern said of Nathan.

The race has featured a paucity of snow. The dogs don't care and cover ground quickly, Vern said, but it makes it difficult for mushers to both stop their teams and keep from getting beaten up as they are jostled along the trail. One musher's team took off without her between Rohn and Nikolai, requiring a search effort that was ongoing Wednesday.

Earlier, crossing the Happy River following the checkpoint at Rainy Pass, mushers encountered open water 3 feet deep. The Dalzell Gorge after that was 15 miles of bare trail showing all of its rocks and stumps.

For the musher, there are long periods of having no one to tell about the encounters. Instead of the pit crews that follow along with mushers on other races, the Iditarod requires self-sufficiency and tasks its mushers with sending bags of supplies to each checkpoint in advance; there are no telecommunications allowed on the trail, either, save for emergencies.

Vern has learned to trust his son and doesn't worry. He takes in the race by tracking the official website.

"I've got a lot of faith in what he does," Vern said. "He's prepared for just about any situation."

Vern was scheduled to fly back to Anchorage and then on to Nome this weekend, trying to be there for a prospective finish on Monday. The 975-mile race that will take most mushers between eight and 10 days is a hour-and-a-half flight aboard a 737, Vern said.

"Hopefully," Vern said, "Nathan doesn't beat me there."