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Berkowitz: New year, new Iditarod strategies

  • Author: Jake Berkowitz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 7, 2016

Less than 24 hours after starting, the Iditarod is now in full force. We've already seen a musher scratch while another pushed 140 miles to Rainy Pass without significant rest. For some, this year seems to have a sense of urgency and many top mushers have wasted no time positioning themselves at the front of the pack.

Others, by contrast, opted for a more conservative style of running, setting themselves up for a strong push later on.

Girdwood veteran Nicolas Petit took the early lead with a run mimicking Martin Buser's 2014 schedule. Petit, the 10th-place finisher a year ago, left Willow Lake at 2:20 p.m. and pulled into Rainy Pass (blowing through Yentna, Skwentna, and Finger Lake) at 8:22 this morning. But his run time of 18 hours and 2 minutes was 3 hours and 28 minutes slower than when Buser made a similar push in 2014.

What will Petit will do next? His options are endless, but if the transplanted Frenchman continues to mimic Buser's 2014 strategy, look for him to pull his snow hook early this afternoon and make a long 110-mile push to Nikolai.

He may not be alone.

Last month's Yukon Quest champion has also made his move right out of the starting chute. Hugh Neff let the world know that his Quest dogs are fully recovered and ready to run another 1,000 miles. Neff went all the way from the start to Finger Lake in 11 hours and 35 minutes, among the fastest times. Unlike Petit, Neff elected to give his team a four-hour break in Finger Lake and now is through Rainy Pass and leading the Iditarod toward Rohn, 170 miles from the starting line.

Typically, Petit's mad dash down the trail would result in a large lead, but defending champion Dallas Seavey was hot on his heels, cutting Petit's lead to 2 hours and 10 minutes by the time he parked his team in Rainy Pass.

In a year in which it's clear that mushers have rethought previous strategies, Seavey is no different, trying something he's never done before. Seavey ran all the way to Skwentna where he gave his team a solid four-hour break and then traveled through Finger Lake all the way to Rainy Pass. This strategy is not new -- former Yukon Quest champion Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers and four-time Iditarod champ Jeff King of Denali Park are among the top racers who've tried it. But it is atypical for Seavey, who's known for taking eight hours of rest prior to reaching Rainy Pass.

With Seavey's run from Skwentna all the way to Rainy Pass he has essentially already shaved four hours off his previous best. The question now is whether Dallas switch back to his old ways and start running more conservatively now that he's among the frontrunners. Or will he keep his foot on the gas and keep pushing?

In this year's race we have already seen one end of the spectrum with Petit's long run into Rainy Pass, but on the other end of the spectrum sit such top contenders as Pete Kaiser of Bethel, Wade Marrs of Willow, and Joar Leifseth Ulsom of Norway who have adopted the "run short -- rest short" mentality. With the warmer-than-normal temperatures coupled with a hard, fast trail, this may very well be the way to go. Kaiser, Marrs, and Ulsom are now on the move to Rainy Pass and so far none of them has run more than five hours -- while keeping their rests to less than three hours.

Starting positions, time differential

Keep in mind that although someone might appear to be ahead of another musher the time differentials from their starting positions will not be factored in until the musher pauses for his or her 24-hour rest. For example, Scott Jansen was the first team to leave the starting line, where as Martin Koenig left 2 hours and 48 minutes after Jansen. When these teams take their 24-hour mandatory stop, Jansen will need to take 26 hours and 48 minutes and Koenig will only need to take 24 hours.

Jake Berkowitz is a three-time Iditarod finisher, including an eighth-place finish in 2013, when he was awarded the Alaska Airlines Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award. He has finished the Yukon Quest twice, both times in fourth place, and won the Rookie of the Year award in 2012. This is his first year of Iditarod commentary for Alaska Dispatch News. Look for his commentaries daily during the race.

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