SHAKTOOLIK— As the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race comes down to its final miles, the strength of dogs, mushers and strategies face a final test on the barren Seward Peninsula. But at least one other factor separates winners from losers some years.
And on Sunday, a bone-chilling 30 mph wind made daytime temperatures that barely creeped into double digits feel much colder, slowing the Last Great Race and possibly scuttling the prospect of Dallas or Mitch Seavey pulling away on the homestretch.
Instead, Eureka musher Brent Sass, a Yukon Quest champion, made his way 50 tough miles from here to Koyuk in seven hours 22 minutes to retake the Iditarod lead while both Seaveys and three-time runner-up Aliy Zirkle took their time, stopping en route.
"Welcome to Shaktoolik," said Gary Bekoalok, a 51-year-old resident born and raised here. "It's always windy." Expect more of the same Monday; the National Weather Service is calling for gusts up to 30 mph.
Sass reached Koyuk at 6:47 p.m. behind 13 dogs who averaged 6.8 mph, making the long run in one push, stopping only to feed his animals. Dallas Seavey arrived 44 minutes later, with Mitch just 2 minutes behind his 29-year-old son, who's gunning for his fourth title. Neither stayed long, jumping back on the trail by 7:48 p.m. and heading for Elim, about 45 miles to the west.
"I'm not moving very fast, but there's a pretty big headwind," Sass told the Iditarod Insider while snacking his dogs in Koyuk.
"It's a little bit different weather. Things change fast. We're on the coast now."
Asked if he planned to camp on the way to Koyuk, Sass said no.
"I don't really feel like camping here," he told Iditarod Insider as the ruff of his parka blew across his face.
From Koyuk, the finish line in Nome is only 170 miles away, and the 44th Iditarod remains very much up for grab.
Two-time Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey left the checkpoint here Sunday afternoon, saying he might be in a "little better position" than his son, Dallas, to prevail. Hours later when pulled out of Koyuk, Mitch was just six minutes behind Dallas, with three more dogs on his string.
"I think I'm the guy to beat," said Mitch, who made the crossing from Shaktoolik to Koyuk about an hour faster than Sass.
But if the 56-year-old, the oldest musher to capture an Iditarod championship, doesn't three-peat this year, he wants Dallas to claim his fourth victory.
"It's a crazy game of poker," he said. Even within the family.
Mitch said his wife always tells him that she's rooting for him, but he said he knows she's cheering on Dallas.
"She's probably a nervous wreck right now, but she's probably happy to see us both in some kind of good position," he said before pulling away from the village en route to Koyuk.
For Pete Kaiser, the sixth-place musher out of this checkpoint, the wind has changed his strategy. No longer is he thinking about how fast his dogs can go. He's thinking about how they can get through cold 35 mph gusts blasting them in the face.
"You're more concerned with just getting over there in one piece," Kaiser said. Once they get past the wind to Koyuk, the race is back on, he said, sitting inside the warm checkpoint here Sunday evening on a fold-out chair. Seventh-place Noah Burmeister sat beside him, his face cheeks red from windburn.
"My face feels like it's been stuck in boiler," he said
Both mushers said they hoped to move up in the race rankings once they escape the gusts. Asked how that might happen, Kaiser said "patience and luck."
"Wait until they screw up," Burmeister said of the race leaders. "Or push them until they slow down."
Like many Iditarod strategies, that's sometimes easier said than done.
Alaska Dispatch News reporter Mike Campbell contributed to this report.