The first day of the second half of the Tesoro Iron Dog snowmobile race started badly for the race leaders in Nome, but they didn't show any sign that a little thing like a 20-minute penalty would keep them down.
The penalty assessed against Polaris drivers Todd Minnick, 28, and Nick Olstad, 25, from Wasilla cut their hard-earned halfway lead from 44 minutes to 24 minutes.
Things didn't stay that way for long.
By White Mountain, the first checkpoint on the trail to Fairbanks, they'd gained back those 20 minutes and more. They got the first 10 back even before leaving the city shop in Nome.
It took Minnick and Olstad less than five minutes to change drive belts and otherwise prep their sleds to resume racing after an 1,100-mile, two-day run north from Big Lake. The second-place team of Tyson Johnson, 28, from Eagle River, and Tyler Aklestad, 22, from Palmer, needed almost 15 minutes to drop the track on one of their Ski-doos, pull out the suspension, put in a new spring and put everything back together.
By then, they were 34 minutes back of the leaders. They lost another 26 minutes on the 75-mile run up and over the Topkok Hills to White Mountain.
Obviously struggling, Johnson and Aklestad pulled into the checkpoint and took the first of the three, six-hour layovers racers are required to take between Nome and Tanana on the way to Fairbanks.
While they were stopped, the race promptly blew by with defending champions Scott Davis, 48, from Soldotna, and Todd Palin, 43, from Wasilla, vaulting into second.
The two Arctic Cat drivers, however, showed no real signs of being able to close the hour and 20 minute gap between themselves and the leaders.
They lost 15 minutes to Minnick and Olstad on the run into White Mountain, gained back 10 minutes of it on the next 95-mile leg from White Mountain to Koyuk, but then lost another minute on the 60-mile dash across the ice of Norton Bay from Koyuk to Shaktoolik.
By Unalakleet, the village that marks the point where the race turns away from the Bering Sea coast toward the frozen rivers of the Interior, Davis and Palin decided they'd had enough and declared a layover.
Minnick and Olstad pushed on over the 90-mile Kaltag Portage to the village of the same name on the north bank of the Yukon River.
They were nestling in there Thursday night.
"I'm sure glad to be in Kaltag,'' Minnick said when reached by telephone. "This is my favorite place. Today was a tough day.''
Along the coast, he said, "it was blowin', snowin', bad light, every bad thing you can think of.''
Race times reflected that. On almost every leg along the coast, teams were running 20 minutes to half an hour slower than they had been on the same legs when the race was going north to Nome earlier in the week.
The race takes a break there so racers can recuperate, then retraces its route as far as Ruby on the Yukon before speeding east to Fairbanks.
The Big Lake-Nome-Fairbanks routing makes for a nearly 2,000-mile event and the world's longest snowmobile race. Given that it crisscrosses some of the last great wilderness in North America, it is clearly the wildest. And everyone who has raced it says there is no doubt it is the toughest.
Because of that, racers are required to compete in teams for safety. Forty teams started the race Sunday at Big Lake. By Thursday, 18 of them had scratched, either because their machines were busted from the pounding, they were injured or simply worn out.
Successful Iron Dog racers train for months to get in shape for this competition, and the top competitors train year round. For aging racers like defending champs Davis, 48, and Palin, 43, that is vital. For twenty-somethings like Minnick and Olstad, it is merely necessary.
Olstad shared a victory in this race when he was running with Marc McKenna from Anchorage in 2005. Minnick has never won, though former teammate and seven-time Iron Dog champ John Faeo says the young man has the talent.
Faeo retired this year but helped Minnick and Olstad by flying spare parts along the trail for them.
He also stands accused of doing a little more. Iron Dog headquarters said the 20-minute penalty assessed to the Olstad-Minnick team came because Faeo allegedly helped work on their sleds in McGrath during a rest stop early in the race. Minnick Thursday denied getting "outside assistance,'' a violation of race rules.
"The penalty's on hold,'' he said, noting that the final outcome has yet to be adjudicated. If he and Olstad are able to hang onto the lead of more than an hour they had built Thursday night, it will be meaningless anyway.
"Anything could happen from here on out, but right now (our sleds) are lookin' good,'' Minnick said. "We've just got to hang together and be smart.''
He didn't know whether to be thankful or unhappy that all the teams behind him appeared to be shutting down for a rest in Unalkaleet.
On one hand, that was a good thing. With the wind howling and the snow flying, nobody would be able to take advantage of the trail he and Olstad broke over the Kaltag Portage.
"It was pretty bad from Unalakleet to here,'' he said. "If you go off the trail, you're going to get stuck and be diggin' for a while.''
Had a team been close behind the leaders, it might have been able to take advantage of their trail to help speed the journey. But after a six-hour wait, the trail will need to be broken again.
Of course, that could be the same fate awaiting Minnick and Olstad on the Yukon.
"I was kind of hoping somebody would get all excited and blow through here to Galena,'' Minnick said. "I don't want to break trail all the way up the Yukon.''
It was looking, however, like that might be the price he'd need to pay for a first Iron Dog victory and the $25,000 winner's share of the purse.
Find Craig Medred online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.