On paper, Aliy Zirkle is leading the Iditarod, arriving first in Unalakleet at 7:30 a.m. Sunday. In reality, it is Dallas Seavey, arriving just 51 minutes later, who is firmly in control and in the best position to win as the race winds down to its final 200 miles.
Dallas was able to make the marathon 80-mile run from Kaltag to Unalakleet in a time almost two hours faster than Zirkle, cementing his position as driver of the strongest team at the most important time in the race. In second place, Dallas has the ability to control the race by shadowing Zirkle's every move along the Norton Sound coast. He realized this tactic back in Ruby, where he made a conscious decision to let the other teams lead, while he countered their moves with extra trail-side rest between Ophir, Cripple and Ruby to put himself in the position he finds himself.
For most 25-year-olds, this would be a very uncharacteristic display of patience and wisdom. Dallas Seavey could be the race leader now if he wanted to be. Dallas Seavey is not your average 25-year-old.
He realizes an important fact of any race: It does not matter whether you win by one minute, one hour or one day. A win is a win is a win. Unless his team faces a major setback or race-ending collapse, it is Dallas's race to lose.
How can the second place musher control the race? Easy. All Dallas has to do is spot Zirkle a 30-to-60 minute lead out of the next two checkpoints, Shaktoolik and Koyuk. He has demonstrated his team's ability to make up the difference in one run, and the rest can afford his team extra strength on the final stretch to Nome. He needs to skip Elim and build a small margin to fend off any last-minute surge by Zirkle, or any of the other mushers chasing close behind. With a 60-minute lead at White Mountain checkpoint, where all mushers are required to take a final eight-hour layover, he will be in excellent position for his first Iditarod victory.
So, pro musher Zack Steer thinks Dallas Seavey's victory is pre-ordained and the other competitors might as well pack up and go home, you say. What could go wrong?
Well, lots of things can go wrong. Namely, the Triple-B group of Baker, Burmeister and Berkowitz have plans of their own that do not include a Zirkle or Seavey victory. Those three mushers, plus a few others, are driving hard from behind and aren't afraid to skip one or even two coastal checkpoints to gain any advantage they can. In fact, the Triple-B's are racing each other so hard they are closing in on Zirkle in the process.
Along the Bering Sea coast of Norton Sound, elite mushers go into a state of autopilot, relying on their years of experience to guide them through the motions of checkpoint dog care and race trail performance. "Exhaustion" hardly describes what most drivers feel during the race's final chapter. Cognitive skills are at a minimum. Rare is the musher who can string more than two sentences together that make sense at this point. It has been amazing see how much Zirkle and Dallas are still very much aware of their situation and in control of their environments.
The "athleticism" of Iditarod mushers is not rooted in their physical aptitude, but in their cognitive ability to endure and persevere under immense stress brought on by severe weather, poor trail conditions, exhaustion and lack of sleep. Not to mention there is a race going on for the title of Iditarod champion -- or, some might say, Best Dog Driver in the World. It is under this definition that today's mushers are truly world-class athletes. I'll save praise for the dogs for later, as only they exceed the mushers in athletic talent and capability during this ultra-endurance event.
The run from Kaltag to Unalakleet took about an hour and a half longer than average (compared to past years). Baker was almost two hours slower than last year's pace on this same section of trail. What was already a long run became a deal-breaker for some of the teams. Mitch Seavey decided to pull up at the Old Woman cabin midway through to give his pups a well-deserved rest. Some of the chase pack had to do the same. I suspect the trail was slow, no surprise for these mushers who have been battling a surplus of snow since day one.
Coming into Unalakleet, Zirkle is 2.5 hours behind John Baker's 2011 record pace. Baker raced hard to the finish last year, so it will be difficult -- if not impossible – for Seavey, Zirkle or any of the others to have another record-breaking year. With the weather forecast looking good through the next few days we can expect a sub-9-day race again this year, with teams in Nome early Tuesday afternoon.
Iditarod 40 is by no means decided. More than 200 miles of racing across some of the most challenging sections of trail remain. Both dogs and drivers are reaching the point of exhaustion and the margins for error are razor thin. Things can still go wrong for any musher at any time. For one musher, everything will go just right.
Zack Steer, a five-time Iditarod finisher, is sitting out this year's race as wife Anjanette takes the kennel's team to Nome. He owns and operates the Sheep Mountain Lodge with Anjanette and two young boys. Zack maintains a small kennel of racing sled dogs, who are much happier to be taking Anjanette (100 pounds lighter than Zack) to Nome this year. Follow Zack's race analysis at Alaska Dispatch.