Some Iditarod leaders are completing their twenty-fours, while others, like Mitch Seavey and Jeff King, have finished and are back on the trail.
Seavey took his break in Ruby and his team showed speed afterward. He was more than an hour faster than King on the 50-mile run from Ruby to Galena, where King took his 24-hour rest.
Both mushers are now on their way to Huslia, where they will catch the leaders, at least temporarily. The inaugural trail to Huslia will see considerable sled traffic on Friday as another 20 teams leave Galena by early afternoon.
Races within the race
While most race watchers focus on the leader board, there are races within the race taking place throughout the field. Scott Smith and Mike Santos, running together, are posting some very good times. You can bet they are racing, and while more than two dozen teams are in front of them, neither will be content to stay far back.
Anna and Kristy Berington are again together. Earlier, Kristy had moved uncharacteristically ahead and was posting some very good times between checkpoints. But they were just eight minutes apart into Galena.
John Baker is crawling back into the mix, up to 14th on Friday after being way back earlier. For a while, the second team from Baker's kennel, driven by 36-year-old Katherine Keith, had moved ahead of the boss. John is still driving a big string of 15 dogs and may be taking a conservative approach in the first half of the race.
Trent Herbst has all of his young dogs on the line. He is running a conservative schedule designed to get as many dogs as possible to Nome. Herbst teaches school in the Sawtooth Mountain region of Idaho, where he offers classes on making snowshoes and building dog sleds. Obviously, the Iditarod is about far more than getting to Nome first.
More pulling power?
But let's look at the front of the pack again.
Aily Zirkle and Jessie Royer are just off their long layovers in Galena. They have fresh teams headed to Huslia just behind Seavey and King. The fact that they have 15 or 16 dogs still on the line doesn't really provide extra pulling power, but it indicates a very well-balanced team that is receiving exemplary care.
Huslia is the official halfway point. From this point forward the trail is longer -- not in miles, but in time. A 10-mph team takes just over eight hours to go from Huslia to Koyukuk. An 8-mph team lengthens that run to more than 10 hours. Little increments of speed less than 1 mph start to add up.
Also significant is dog care. It takes less time to bootie 13 dogs than 16, but once a musher's team has fewer than 12 animals, pulling power begins to be a factor. Extra time might need to be expended by the musher to ensure an individual dog remains in the team.
This Iditarod is relatively flat the entire way. Consequently, a small dog team may not matter so much. After all, Dallas Seavey is sometimes resting three or four dogs at a time in his trailer and staying close to the lead.
During the inaugural Iditarod in 1973, second-place finisher Warner Vent of Huslia arrived in Nome with only six dogs, the minimum allowed on a finishing team by race rules today. Vent chased Dick Wilmarth, who was traveling with a much bigger string of animals and also had good air support, all the way to Nome.
The deciding difference among the top five may be their penchant for risk. How much can a rest stop be shortened without dropping the dogs over the edge where their speed declines precipitously?
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.