KOYUK -- Heavy snow and blowing winds that piled it into drifts along the Bering Sea coast had the leaders in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race slogging it out on the way to the coastal village of Elim on Monday night.
Race leader and defending champ Dallas Seavey from Willow continued to cling to a lead of a hour and a half or more over chasing Aaron Burmeister from Nome, but it was slow going for both teams.
Satellite trackers on their sleds showed the dogs often making only 5 to 7 mph. They would normally be doing 8 to 9 mph. Last year, on the way to an upset victory, Seavey made the 50 miles run from Koyuk to Elim in just a shade over five and a half hours.
As of 10 p.m. Monday night, he'd already been on the trail five hours and was still about 12 miles out of the checkpoint. At the speeds the teams were moving it would take him a couple more hours to cover that distance.
It has been this was since the windy coastal village of Shaktoolik, now about 80 miles behind the leaders. They slogged about 50 miles from there into the quiet community of Koyuk on Monday afternoon and rested for more than four hours before Seavey's father, two-time Iditarod champ Mitch, pulled up off Norton Bay on Monday afternoon.
When the 55-year-old Mitch hit town, 27-year-old Dallas bolted. Mitch was at the time running fifth.
"That's my cue,'' Seavey the younger said when his pa pulled in. "People are coming."
And with that, the Dallas headed off to lead a half dozen teams into the home stretch of the 1,000-mile race to Nome. Burmeister waited more than an hour before he took up the chase.
Few competitors seemed anxious to return to the trail to join the pursuit after their exhausting 50-mile runs across Norton Bay from Shaktoolik. It took some teams almost 9 hours to cover that distance as they fought through a snowstorm that left the dogs almost swimming in fast accumulating sugar snow.
"Nothing to it," Dallas Seavey said of the trail. "It's like air. It's like running in a million plastic pellets."
"We broke trail in a whiteout blizzard for eight hours coming here," added Aaron Burmeister of Nome, who pulled in moments behind Seavey.
A Seavey team that had been averaging 8 to 10 mph along the Bering Sea coast slowed to less than 7 mph. Despite that, he was about an hour and 45 minutes faster than Burmeister on the crossing, arriving at 12:34 p.m. and resting about four hours
"Speed is relative, and you always work with the trail and not against it," he said. "Some trails (are) good to be fast on. Some trails, it's best just to get through. The last trail was trail you get through."
'Strongest, fastest team'
Burmeister had jumped out of the Shaktoolik checkpoint an hour and a half in front of Seavey in the wee hours Monday, but he couldn't hold that lead. Still, Seavey praised his competitor, saying Burmeister's dogs continue to look strong.
Seavey accepted, however, that the race now appears to be his to win or lose.
"I have the strongest, fastest team,'' he said. "All I have to do is stay in front and give my dogs as much rest as (possible). I'm not going to try to showboat and race out to the finish line or get a big lead."
But Burmeister wasn't conceding.
"I'm not going to back down at all," he said "From what I understand, it snowed like this all the way to White Mountain," another 100 miles ahead on the 1,000-mile trail to Nome. All teams take a mandatory, eight-hour break there before making the last 80-mile push to the finish.
Burmeister confessed that if he'd known what sort of snowstorm he was heading into Monday, he might have stayed in Shaktoolik longer.
"I've been running 15 hours,'' he said. "It should have taken 11.''
Snow started falling heavily just out of Shaktoolik. He estimated there might have been 8 inches of new snow atop older snow.
"That was not part of the plan," Burmeister said. "I knew there was wind. I didn't know it'd be dumping snow."
Burmeister planned to rest his team as long as possible here. He said his lead dogs spent a lot of time wandering side-to-side down the trail, trying to steer the team around snow drifts, and the musher had to sort out a marker-to-marker passage across the bay.
Burmeister appeared ready to let Seavey dictate the next move with their teams only minutes apart.
"Why should I be in a hurry to chase people down?'' he asked. "Let them go wear their dog teams down a bit. Let the trail set up a little bit.''
Seavey wasn't underestimating the threat from those behind him. "If anybody should have learned their lesson about the race not being over 'til its over, it should be me after last year. It's still too fresh in my mind to say 'this is ours.'"
In that race, both Jeff King of Denali Park and Aliy Zirkle from Two Rivers looked on their way to almost certain victory out of White Mountain. Howling winds on the west end of the Topkok Hills, however, changed everything and Seavey came from behind to win.
Zirkle, the three-time runner-up, was as frustrated as Burmeister when she arrived here at 3:18 p.m.. "This was my Hail Mary, but I think the other team behind me caught it and is going to score a touchdown pass."
Like Burmeister, she wished in retrospect that she'd stayed longer in Shaktoolik. And she lamented the dwindling speed of her dogs. "They should be going 8 mph the way they're eating."
The musher behind Zirkle who caught the "touchdown pass" would be Jessie Royer of Montana, who pulled into Koyuk just 24 minutes behind Zirkle. Only Seavey made the 50-mile run faster than Royer.
The winner of this year's Iditarod stands to collect a truck plus $70,000.