With race heating up, Iditarod leaders finalize their strategies

UNALAKLEET -- For a brief four hours early Sunday, the sled dog teams of Iditarod front-runners Dallas Seavey and Brent Sass rested within four or so feet of each other, side by side on a snowy stretch of land bordered by crowds on the edge of the Norton Sound.

But the Iditarod mushers' styles at the checkpoint here couldn't be further apart.

Seavey knows how to win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. In the past four years, he's already done it three times. The Willow resident and father of a young daughter pulled into the checkpoint here 42 minutes after Sass. He didn't waste any time.

He went down the line and petted each dog. He took the booties off their paws. He dished out frozen snacks. He talked to the veterinarians and started ripping up his bale of straw, shuffling it around his team. "Brief intermission on the food, dogs," Seavey told them.

At this point in the race, Seavey said, seconds count. He prepared for what turned out to be a four-hour rest.

"It's a 1,000-mile race, which means you have a lot of days for one second at a time to add up," Seavey said. "And, that's exactly what they do, so I think it's easy for people to be two hours behind at the finish line and just kind of wave it off as, 'Oh, they had a better team,' but not realize that they had two hours of wasted time, 10 or 15 seconds at a time."

On the other side of the snowy strip, Sass was boiling a large pot of water. He defrosted two 5-Hour Energy drinks and shoved them into his jacket's breast pocket. Sass lives in a homestead in Eureka. He's won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest in the past, but never the Iditarod. He led toward the front of the pack early last year, but got disqualified once race officials found out he carried an iPod Touch -- which can connect to wireless Internet, though Sass said he simply used it for music.


Sass pegged Seavey as one of his top competitors, though he said with 300 miles left in the race it's really hard to say who's not competition.

"There's a lot left and there's a lot of really good teams. Anything could happen," he said. "But he's sitting here right next to me. So I would say he's the main competitor."

Both mushers' paths continued to cross inside the checkpoint building. Shortly after 1 a.m., Seavey piled a plate with pancakes, eggs and bacon. He got a glass of orange juice and asked for a bathroom to wash his hands before he started eating.

"This is some of the most valuable time of our day, when the dogs are getting to sleep," he said.

Aside from a few media interviews, Seavey sat alone at the table, reading a printout of the race standings. He asked someone if he could heat up a few frozen Capri Suns.

Sass, on the other hand, sat in front of a big pizza with his dad, who has been following the trail. A woman came over and asked for his autograph. Sass hasn't spent much time at checkpoints this race, choosing instead to camp on the trail. Here, he said, he hoped to gather intel on the trail conditions ahead.

He described himself as "a little more unpredictable" than Seavey. But that's probably just because he hasn't run the Iditarod as much, he added. The two share the same intensity levels, he said.

His strategy up the coast?

"Don't stop very much. I think that's probably the biggest thing," Sass said.

While Seavey said, simply, "Run my dogs. I don't have a real schedule yet."

Before Seavey went into his room for the night to get some sleep, he walked over to Sass' table and asked about his race. At this point, Seavey said, his biggest competition is his dad, Mitch Seavey, and Sass -- though it's hard to say.

"We've got an old guy trying to catch up with us," Seavey told Sass. "Let's get in the hills and get ready to run."

Mitch Seavey was first out of Unalakleet at 5:14 a.m. Dallas followed at 5:25 a.m., with Sass just four minutes behind.

By early Sunday afternoon, Dallas Seavey had blown through the next checkpoint at Shaktoolik with his father trailing him and Sass in third.

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.