The Iditarod has once again reached familiar territory and joined up, at least briefly, with the race's traditional route at the Yukon River village of Ruby.
Wade Marrs of Wasilla led the field into the checkpoint Wednesday night and after a little hemming and hawing chose to take his mandatory 24- hour rest there.
Forty-six minutes after Marrs arrived, defending champion Dallas Seavey of Willow powered his way up the hill into the village, once again carrying three dogs in his futuristic sled that looks more like an F-22 than an old-fashioned freight sled.
Seavey, a four-time champion, is clearly still in what he calls building-the-monster mode and may continue hauling dogs all the way to Kaltag, the final Yukon River checkpoint, if the trail warrants. But Dallas wasn't the Seavey most Iditarod watchers were talking about Thursday.
About 30 minutes after Dallas arrived, his father, Mitch, a two-time champion, pulled in, carrying dogs in his sled too. But Mitch had no inclination to take any of his mandatory rests in Ruby and set sail for Galena four hours after his arrival, leaving Dallas, Marrs and others behind.
He decided this was as good a time as any to throw down the gauntlet. With a blistering fast run into Galena, while still carrying dogs in his sled, Seavey let everyone know that he has no issues with leaving his son and the rest of the competition in his rear-view mirror.
The Ruby-to-Galena run is an excellent gauge. This is the first run since the start in which everyone runs straight through and we can compare run times.
For now, the only team that seems faster than Seavey's belongs to Nicolas Petit of Girdwood, who took his mandatory eight-hour rest in Galena during the heat of the day before returning to the trail Thursday afternoon.
After a short rest, Mitch Seavey bolted from Galena bound for the race's halfway point in Huslia, where common wisdom would suggest he's planning to take his 24-hour rest.
Where mushers decide to take their 24-hour rest is probably their biggest strategic decision. A bad choice can lose the race. Now that most mushers have started pulling over to rest, let's look at the choices and the rationale behind them.
Top teams choosing to take their 24s in Ruby include Marrs, Dallas Seavey, Richie Diehl of Aniak and four-time champion Martin Buser of Big Lake.
Marrs is clearly the race leader at the moment, and will be allowed to leave Ruby at 8:08 p.m. Thursday, 68 minutes ahead of Dallas Seavey. Marrs clearly pushed it to arrive into Ruby first, with only a short three-hour break during the 119-mile run from Tanana.
Mushers typically try to take their 24s when their dogs are tired — but not too tired. If you rest the team too early, the rest may be wasted. However, if a musher pushes too far and takes the zip out of the team, very rarely does it return.
Coming off their 24-hour rest, it would be surprising if we see top teams spend any time in Galena. With a distance of 130 miles between Ruby and Huslia, expect these teams to run Ruby to Huslia in two runs of about 65 miles apiece.
Top teams choosing to take their 24s in Galena include perennial top-10 finisher Joar Leifseth Ulsom, three-time Kuskokwim 300 champion Pete Kaiser and Ray Redington, grandson of Iditarod founder Joe Redington.
Petit took his mandatory eight-hour rest in Galena, a smart decision that allowed him to rest during the heat of the day and leave in the late afternoon, which most likely will put him into Huslia around 1:30 a.m. Friday. Petit has set himself up on a very nice run-and-rest cycle, avoiding the heat of the day as well as the dreaded 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. stretch.
Ulsom arrived into Galena less than an hour behind Mitch Seavey with 14 nice-looking dogs and quickly declared his 24-hour rest. He ran nearly 0.5 mph slower than Seavey on his trip from Ruby to Galena.
Kaiser, one of the early race leaders, arrived more than an hour behind Ulsom. His early race strategy of short-run, short-rest may be hurting him now. It took Kaiser about 30 minutes longer than Seavey to make the run from Ruby to Galena.
Redington was in a sticky situation. He arrived at 10:48 a.m. Thursday after taking his eight-hour layover back in Tanana, but decided not to push past Galena during the heat of day. Redington declared his 24 when he arrived and if he follows through with that decision, he will leave at high noon Friday and be forced to run in the beating sun.
For mushers taking their 24-hour rest in Galena, look for two different strategies to play out.
Option 1: Race the entire 80 miles to Huslia in one run, followed by the 85-mile run from Huslia to Koyukuk in one shot, too. This section of trail destroyed many mushers' hopes in the 2015 Iditarod.
Option 2 (my personal favorite): Three runs of about 60 miles apiece from Galena to Nulato, skipping stops in both Huslia and Koyukuk. This strategy is not for the faint of heart and resembles a Yukon Quest-style run, but if executed well, it may maximize a team's speed while eliminating the risk of back-to-back 80-mile runs.
We must assume Mitch Seavey's big push will conclude with the 57-year-old taking his 24-hour rest in Huslia. By 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Jessie Royer, Michelle Phillips, former champion John Baker, Ralph Johannessen and Petit were en route, too. Unlike Mitch Seavey, they all had finished their eight-hour rests.
The upshot: If a musher can make it to Huslia without taking anything much out of his team or losing ground to his competitors, look for that team to make a big push on the Bering Sea coast.
I expect Mitch Seavey into Huslia around 9 p.m. Thursday, setting himself up for a long push when he leaves after a 24-hour rest.
With Seavey not having taken either his short or long layover, look for him to push all the way to Kaltag before taking his eight-hour mandatory stop.
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.