Want to know who's winning the Iditarod?
At this point, it's practically anyone's guess.
In a race that in the beginning was more about surviving treacherous conditions to Nikolai than predicting front runners, those who survived are starting to make their moves. But whether those moves -- some of which are proving to be nontraditional -- will pay off remains to be seen.
Take, for example, Jeff King of Denali and Sonny Lindner of Two Rivers. Both mushers raced all the way to Ruby, the first checkpoint on the Yukon River, with only a handful of short breaks. Or take Kelly Maixner, the Big Lake dentist who "pulled a Buser" and took his 24-hour rest after running nonstop to Rohn.
Or the "Buser" namesake himself, Martin, who mixed things up by taking one four-hour break in Rainy Pass before moving ahead to take his 24-hour rest in Nikolai.
Then there's Robert Sorlie, who, after a rough start that included losing the back of his sled on the Happy River steps and a terrifying ride through the Dalzell Gorge, appears to have more than found his speed. His times between checkpoints have been blazing. If he can keep it up, he could prove to be a force to be reckoned with farther down the trail.
So what strategy will work? What will catapult a musher to the front?
There's little precedent for the long run move. Over the years, only a handful of mushers have pushed all the way to the Yukon before taking their long 24-hour rests. Most of them have found success; a few have found nothing but heartache.
Eventual champ John Baker managed a fifth-place finish when he pushed to Ruby in 1998. In 2006 Paul Gebhardt, currently running in 15th place, pushed all the way to Galena before declaring his rest. He finished third. In 2001, Linwood Fielder ran to Anvik, the first Yukon River checkpoint on the southern route, and finished an impressive second. However, no musher has ever taken their long break past the Yukon River and gone on to win.
In Cripple, Race Marshall Mark Nordman was pleased to see longtime racers like Lindner and King near the top. The two are savvy competitors, and it would be foolish, he said, to not seriously consider their strategies.
"They're not doing it to secure a good place," Nordman said. "They're doing it to win."
Maixner conceded in Cripple Thursday that parts of his plan had backfired. He hadn't anticipated losing the carrier to his sled designed to give dogs a chance to rest along the way. Instead, they'd all run in the team since losing the carrier somewhere between Rohn and Nikolai. He dropped three dogs in Cripple, the remote checkpoint that's little more than an Iditarod tent city. He agreed that King's decision to push on to Ruby was smart.
"It's probably a good decision on his part," Maixner said.
Dallas Seavey, who took his rest in Takotna -- which is considered the traditional strategy -- didn't think pushing all the way to Ruby was a bad idea -- at least, not for the mushers who did it.
"The question is whether they do too much damage," Seavey said.
He acknowledged that few have succeeded in pulling off such a strategy, but that in certain years it's a move that could work -- including years like this one with so much hard and fast trail.
Seavey has long acknowledged his thorough breakdowns of trail strategy. He's said that when certain winning teams make a move, they are forces to be reckoned with. For him, that includes King and Lindner. "They're no greenhorns," he said. "If anyone knows if it's going to work this year, it's going to be Sonny and Jeff."
For King, it's about running the dogs to their abilities. This year that's meant going all the way Ruby and forgetting the scrum in Takotna.
"I will go to my grave saying this was a smart move," he said between bites of roasted pear crème brulee tart. "I don't know if it's enough to win it, but I'll say it's a smart move."
That's not to say he doesn't realize the difficulties. He'll leave Ruby at about 9 a.m. Friday. Buser, who arrived in the village at 6:45 p.m. Thursday and declared his eight-hour mandatory rest, a stop all mushers must take somewhere on the Yukon River, won't leave until nearly 3 a.m., Friday well ahead of King, who'll have to give chase.
But as he dined and sipped on champagne -- the fruits of winning the coveted first-to-the-Yukon prize -- King noted he'd just finished sleeping for six hours and he still had at least another six hours of sleep ahead of him, a bonus he hoped would propel him. But the four-time champion acknowledged it would be a fight to the end.
"Hell yeah, I'm concerned," he said.