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Look who's among the Iditarod leaders (no, not that Mackey)

  • Author: Jake Berkowitz
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published March 8, 2017

Jason Mackey competes in the Iditarod restart Monday in Fairbanks. (Nathaniel Wilder / Reuters)

The lead pack came rolling into Tanana on Tuesday night and it was clear that no matter how many Iditarod mushers say that the race really begins in Kaltag, it has started.

Nicolas Petit led the field into Tanana with a blistering run-time that was 40 minutes faster than anyone else's to claim the First to the Yukon award.

In less than three hours, the star-studded cast of the top 10 had arrived. However, there was one name in that group that was a surprise to all — maybe not the last name, but definitely the first: Jason Mackey.

Mackey, whose best finish was 26th in 2004, has yet to break the 10-day barrier, but this year, nearly 300 miles into the race, he is playing with the big boys. His brother is four-time champion Lance Mackey, who decided to sit out this year's Iditarod.

Mackey, who cut significant rest in Manley (staying only three hours), arrived fourth in Tanana.

Mushers know the race cannot be won in the first 300 miles, but the race can certainly be lost. Keep a close eye on Mackey the next 300 miles. If he continues his upward trend, he will not only be shooting for the Most Improved Musher award (won last year by Noah Burmeister, who finished 11th — a huge jump from his previous best of 52nd) but also a spot near the top.

In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, the top 10 departed Tanana to tackle the longest, loneliest stretch of the race to Nome, 120 miles downriver to Ruby.

They were led by the young-gun trio of Wade Marrs, 26, the fourth-place finisher last year; Dallas Seavey, 30, the four-time and defending champion; and Pete Kaiser, 29, the three-time Kuskokwim 300 champion. Each took luxuriously long rests in Tanana.

Tanana was also the place where every musher's strategy for the first 200-plus miles converged and, for once, the game of leapfrog was over.

One doesn't need to look far to see how incredible the teams are — through Tanana, only three of the 160 dogs that started on the teams of the top 10 racers have been left behind at any checkpoint.

Most of the frontrunners seemed to be racing the 120-mile stretch into Ruby with similar strategies, splitting the run into two even legs.

Expect all of them to stop in Ruby on Wednesday night. The odds of someone leapfrogging Ruby to grab the lead is slim.

However, the old saying that "the odds are good, but the goods are odd" comes to mind when thinking of Petit. I learned long ago that the only thing to expect with Petit is the unexpected.

He took an incredible long rest of nearly seven hours in Tanana, then ran 75 miles toward Ruby in roughly 9 hours and 20 minutes (an average of 8 mph). This strategy can mean one of two things:

Petit was hoping to rest his team during the warmest part of the day, and if he takes five hours of rest on the trail, he will leave at 4 p.m. as the sun begins to dip and can make a relatively short run into Ruby where he will rest once again.

Or, Petit is setting himself up for a big push to Galena, where he'll take his mandatory 24-hour break.

An Iditarod musher drives their team between the checkpoints of Manley and Tanana during the 2017 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Tuesday. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

If this is the case Petit will have nearly a 100-mile run to Galena (skipping Ruby). If Petit can pull this off, he will have eliminated one rest and be as much as four hours ahead of the pack leaving Galena.

Even though Petit could lead the pack into Galena, the race is currently being led by Marrs, who has dumped his run-short, rest-short strategy in favor of running longer (up to eight hour runs) and resting shorter. Marrs only rested three hours on the river en route to Ruby, cutting 30 minutes off of Dallas Seavey's river rest and an hour off of Mitch Seavey's.

Marrs reached Ruby at 6:40 p.m. Wednesday, about an hour slower than Mitch Seavey's time two years ago but about three hours ahead of his own schedule two years ago.

The next big question mushers will grapple with is where to take their mandatory 24-hour rest and their mandatory eight-hour rest on the Yukon River.

On the Iditarod's normal route, it is nearly a guarantee that mushers will take their 24-hour rest first, but with mushers able to take their eight-hour break as early as Tanana, where to pause is not as cut and dried as usual.

A pack of mushers have already taken their eight-hour layover. Among them: four-time champions Martin Buser and Jeff King, Mackey, Ray Redington, Jr. and former Yukon Quest champion Hugh Neff.

Look for most frontrunners to take their 24-hour break in Galena or Huslia. Anything past Huslia would be a very big surprise, but you could see mushers electing to settle down for their 24s as early as Ruby, something Mitch Seavey pulled off in 2015 that resulted in a second-place finish.

Rookie watch

Although most Iditarod rookies only hope to finish with a happy and healthy dog team, some are racing for Rookie of the Year honors, too.

Though it's early, an unlikely rookie has positioned himself toward the front of the pack and not only appears in control of the Rookie of the Year award, but also may be in contention for a top 10 finish, which hasn't happened since Norwegian transplant Joar Ulsom was seventh in 2013.

Sebastien Vergnaud, who was born in France, was an unlikely choice for the top rookie because he started the Iditarod with 12 dogs. When asked why, his answer was simple, "I only had 12 dogs."

Vergnaud is running about three hours ahead of the next rookie, Robert Redington of Willow.

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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