Kotzebue musher John Baker is the current Iditarod Trail recordholder, setting the standard of eight days, 18 hours, 46 minutes in 2011. By my estimate, the lead pack in this year's race is traveling almost 10 hours ahead of that pace.
In 2011, Baker departed Kaltag checkpoint at 5:18 p.m. This year, Aliy Zirkle left the same checkpoint at 3:18 a.m. -- 14 hours earlier. Zirkle will most likely rest at least three hours on the run to Unalakleet, but she's all but certain to arrive in Unalakleet far ahead of Baker's record pace.
Unfortunately for Zirkle, she probably won't be the leader when she pulls into the first checkpoint on the Norton Sound coastline. Race leaders Martin Buser, Nick Petit, Sonny Lindner and Jeff King may all be ahead of her at that point. The tight field of race leaders is playing leapfrog as they push their teams to the limit, balancing long runs with the minimum amount of rest needed to keep their team speed intact. Skip too much rest, and the team will falter -- perhaps not immediately but within a day or two. Rest too long, and you let the competition get too far ahead.
Dallas Seavey has come from behind before
Zirkle is sticking to her pre-race schedule, running the dogs according to their needs and not reacting to the mushers around her. When asked in Galena what her plan was to catch Martin Buser, Zirkle said, "I am still going to stick on the schedule that I have worked out on paper right now for my team and we'll see where that lands with Martin."
Inevitably, Zirkle is going to need to look at the teams around her and decide if she should modify her plan.
Dallas Seavey is 11 hours ahead of his 2012 championship race pace, although his position is certain to fall as he delayed taking his mandatory eight-hour Yukon River rest until Saturday. Dallas will be leaving Kaltag just before 1 p.m., almost five hours behind the lead pack. But the 2012 Iditarod champion has been in this position before. The year of his championship he left Kaltag in fifth place, three hours behind the race leader. He made up that time and more along the Norton Sound coast to claim victory.
Both Zirkle and Dallas Seavey have dropped three dogs since Galena, not wanting to take any chance of carrying extra weight in their sleds or risking the health of a dog on the homestretch. With 11 dogs each out of Kaltag, both Zirkle and Seavey are running close to the minimum need to have a strong final push along the coast beyond Unalakleet.
Nick Petit continues to run a large string of 14 powerful dogs and is posting some of the fastest run times on the trail. Petit is running an amazing 32 hours ahead of his 2012 race pace when he wound up 29th. Obviously, Petit has learned a thing or two about racing in the past two years. There are plenty of hills outside of Unalakleet and Elim that will slow a small dog team of no more than 10 animals. Petit has the advantage along the coast of being able to drop an underperforming dog or two and still maintain his team's power.
Stategic error by Lindner?
Sonny Lindner has run a superb race to this point, but his decision to take an extra two hours' rest in Kaltag this morning is perplexing. Lindner had just rested for eight hours in Nulato, about 40 miles and four running hours prior to his Kaltag arrival. With a well-rested team, Lindner should have continued on the trail to camp out at one of the shelter cabins at either Tripod Flats or Old Woman on the way to Norton Sound coast. This would have made the long, 85-mile run to Unalakleet more manageable. Perhaps the draw of a warm checkpoint and hot meal was too irresistible for the 64-year-old musher? Or maybe Lindner is planning a long push straight through and wants to add a little gas to the dogs' tank?
Lance Mackey made one of the boldest moves in Iditarod history in 2010 when he ran his dogs nearly 120 miles nonstop from Nulato to Unalakleet. That 18-hour run catapulted him from third to first and gave him a three-hour lead that held up to Nome. With hard and fast trail conditions this year, it might be possible for one of the trailing mushers -- such as King, Kelly Maixner or Petit -- to duplicate that feat.
King has the most rested team of that group, having just spent eight hours in Nulato completing his mandatory Yukon River rest. If King wants to add the elusive fifth Iditarod championship to his resume, a bold move such as this might be his only option. King currently sits about three hours behind the race leaders. His dilemma is whether to try and make up that difference in one large move, or to slowly try and nibble away at the leaders, one checkpoint at a time. King has speed on his side, posting the fastest time (3:38) between Nulato and Kaltag of the current top-10. King stayed a scant nine minutes while gathering food and supplies and dropping two dogs.
There is an old musher saying: "A dog team is like a chain saw; they run best right before they quit." Undoubtedly, King remembers a similar situation in 2012, when a fast dog team quit on him during this same run to Unalakleet. Push on to Unalakleet or rest midway. What will this wise veteran choose to do?
The lead pack of mushers has pulled away from the trailing teams of Joar Ulsom of Norway, Hugh Neff of Tok, Hans Gatt of Yukon Territory and Kelly Maixner of Big Lake. These mushers must now set their sights on a top-10 finish rather than a championship. The racing among them will be keen, and all will continue to hope that some teams ahead will falter.
Neff and Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof are already down to eight dogs and will most likely go into "preservation" mode with extra rest at each checkpoint along the coast. Iditarod rules require a minimum of six dogs in harness at the finish line, and Neff and Gebhardt have little room to spare.
Nightmare trail flashbacks
The good times are about to end as the Iditarod race teams prepare to run the final 200 miles along the Norton Sound coast. After surviving a hellacious run through the Dalzell Gorge and the snowless trail on the north side of the Alaska Range, mushers have enjoyed ideal trail conditions through the middle third of the race. Based early trail reports, the mushers will once again be running on rock, dirt, ice and tussocks as they navigate a modified coastal course due to changing sea ice conditions.
The race route between Shaktoolik and Koyuk is normally a flat 50 miles on the frozen ocean. Due to unsafe ice conditions, this year's trail will most likely hug closer to the shoreline and add up to 15 miles to the standard race route. Mushers can also expect course changes between Elim and Golovin, where the ice was completely out just three weeks ago. The "overland" route between Elim and Golovin is established but technically much more difficult, including an additional 15 miles of mountainous terrain. The Iditarod Trail Committee always looks to put in the safest trail possible, given the ever-changing conditions along the Bering Sea Coast.
The top 10 teams are all still in the hunt as they converge in Unalakleet. From that point forward, the race becomes a match of will and determination. Expect more teams to fall off the torrid pace as trail conditions deteriorate. Exhausted mushers and dogs will look for every ounce of energy and any bit of luck as they approach the finish in Nome.
Historically, bad weather in the form of high winds and ground blizzards has been the mushers' nemesis along the coast. The forecast for the next three days looks good, with mild temperatures and only light winds. With thin snow cover, mushers will once again find themselves bump-scratch-dragging along a ribbon of ice and tussocks. The Nome finish is usually 50 to 54 hours after the Unalakleet departure times. But this year may take longer if the trail is extended on the overland sections. Don't start celebrating a new Iditarod record quite yet.
Zack Steer, a five-time Iditarod finisher, owns and operates the Sheep Mountain Lodge with Anjanette and two young boys. Zack will bring a competitive racer's analysis to this year's Iditarod coverage. Follow Zack's race analysis at Alaska Dispatch.