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A day into the Iditarod, mushers' strategies begin to take shape

  • Author: Jake Berkowitz
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published March 7, 2017

One of Jodi Bailey’s dogs digs into the snow at the Nenana checkpoint Monday. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

A day has passed since 71 teams left the starting line in Fairbanks, headed for Nome. Many of the prerace concerns that mushers grappled with have been answered by the first 150 miles of trail.

Question 1: How much snow is on the river, and will a race once won on snowshoes see the snowshoes make a comeback?

Answer: Although the Tanana River has lots of snow, Iditarod trailbreakers have done an incredible job putting in an excellent trail, and the cold weather of the Interior (including minus 40 temperatures in Manley) has set the snow up to be hard and fast. In an interview, four-time champion Martin Buser described the first 140 miles as an urban Fur Rendezvous trail. At this point, the ominous deep-snow warnings are off-base.

Question 2: With the new trailer rule — which prohibits carrying dogs or mandatory equipment in a trailer pulled by the sled— will Dallas Seavey be able to continue his strategy of rotating dogs, which helped him win the 2016 Iditarod?

Answer: In true Seavey fashion, he created a new sled he has likened to an F-22. To me, it looks more like a mushing Batmobile, all black and built out of carbon fiber. His new sled easily allows him to carry up to four dogs at a time (Seavey carried four dogs into the first checkpoint in Nenana as well as the second checkpoint in Manley) as well as a working dog-food cooker that allows him to prepare his dogs' meal while racing down the trail. His new cooker (something Jeff King has been using the last few years) allows Seavey to maximize his personal rest at his stops and not be forced to sit around watching his pot boil.

Seavey's father, Mitch Seavey, who also played around with rotating dogs in the 2016 Iditarod, was seen coming into Manley this morning with 12 dogs on the line and four riding comfortably in his sled. At this point the Seavey duo are the only mushers who seem to be carrying four dogs consistently.

Some early analysis

Twenty-four hours into the Iditarod, we can evaluate how some strategies are playing out and how they compare to the race's normal route up and over the Alaska Range.

Martin Buser

The four-time champion from Big Lake arrived in Manley first with nearly a 90-minute lead over Mitch Seavey, the second team in.

Buser's strategy up to his arrival in Manley was fairly normal. But then he decided to declare his 24-hour layover, just 150 miles into the 1,000-mile race.

The move proved to be a gambit, because after about six hours, Buser pulled the hook and gave chase as the 13th musher out of Manley

Mushers must declare their 24-hour break or else the clock won't start running, but they can cancel it and leave at any point.

Mitch and Dallas Seavey

As the second and fourth teams to arrive in Manley, respectively, both broke up their runs from the starting line to Manley into two even 70-mile runs with a 4.5 hour rest and 3.5 hour rest, respectively.

Although two-time champion Mitch arrived into Manley 15 minutes before Dallas, his run time on the 140-mile stretch was 75 minutes faster than his son's. Mitch is known for having more raw speed than Dallas, the defending champion, and although 75 minutes is nothing at this point in the race, it could suggest different strategies going forward — Mitch's speed vs. Dallas' shorter rests.

Dallas' strategy of two even 70-mile runs is similar to last year, when he arrived at Rainy Pass with four hours of rest (this year he cut off 30 minutes, resting only 3.5 hours).

However, this is a very different strategy for Mitch, who usually likes to break up the first 150 miles of Iditarod into three even runs with roughly seven hours of rest, significantly more than the 4.5 hours he's taken this year.

Nicolas Petit

Petit continues to be the man of mystery. The third musher to reach Manley Tuesday morning, he ran his team 100 miles out of the start with just a quick 30-minute break in Nenana before taking a longer rest.

This move left avid race fans wondering if Petit was going to attempt something that has only been theorized among mushers — racing the Iditarod with 10 runs about 100 miles apiece.

That thought was short-lived after Petit rested 4.5 hours and ran a short 40-mile run into Manley, where he was resting once again at midday. Petit has said that he likes to run long right off the bat to take a little of the edge off his team, and so far his decisions seem to indicate he's doing that once again.

Wade Marrs and Pete Kaiser

Marrs was the fifth team into Manley and Kaiser was the third team out. Both are using the run-short, rest-short strategy, and both are running as they did last year when they finished fourth and fifth, respectively.

Kaiser is making slightly shorter runs than Marrs and resting shorter as well. Kaiser is keeping his runs consistently at 4.5 hours and resting only two hours.

It will be interesting to see how long these two can keep it up, given that the strategy does not allow any time for the musher to rest, other than the 24-hour break.

Aliy Zirkle and Joar Ulsom

This duo led a large group of mushers out of Manley toward Tanana, spending no time in Manley.

Zirkle and Ulsom have run nearly identical schedules to this point and are breaking the run from Fairbanks to Tanana into what looks like four segments. Both mushers decided to rest next to each other 15 miles outside of the checkpoint.

Jake Berkowitz is a three-time Iditarod finisher, including an eighth-place finish in 2013, when he was awarded the Alaska Airlines Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award. He has finished the Yukon Quest twice, both times in fourth place, and won the Rookie of the Year award in 2012. This is his second year of Iditarod commentary for Alaska Dispatch News.  Look for his commentaries daily during the race.

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