Young Willow musher Wade Marrs has gone rogue on us, delivering mind games that can leave a tired competitor's brain going in circles. In an interview with Iditarod Insider, Marrs said with conviction that he was going to the Huslia checkpoint before taking his eight-hour break, required of every musher somewhere along the Yukon River.
As we sit here now, we see Marrs, 26, pulled over 27 miles short of Huslia after taking a pit stop in Galena. He's poised to blow through Huslia early this evening, almost three hours before race leader Mitch Seavey of Sterling finishes his 24-hour break.
Marrs has played his cards beautifully and will most likely arrive in Koyukuk for his mandatory eight-hour break around 10 a.m. Saturday, allowing him to rest during the heat of the day — and forecasts suggest temperatures may hit 30 above, nearly an 80-degree swing from the lows only a couple of days ago. What Marrs has done is disrupt the status quo. Whether or not by design, he is pushing Mitch and Dallas Seavey to make decisions that they may not have wanted to make this early.
Defending four-time Iditarod champion Dallas, of Willow, is being forced to run through the heat of the day Friday, a result of his decision to blow through Galena in the morning en route to Huslia.
The decision is inevitably weighing on Seavey, a musher who seldom makes errors. But it's possible this decision could be a game-changer.
Later this evening, the Seavey duo will be reunited again, and unless the younger member decides to take his eight-hour rest in Huslia, the father-and-son duo should depart the halfway point together, bound for Koyukuk, the next checkpoint some 85 miles down the trail.
If the Seavey duo makes this long 85-mile run straight to Koyukuk, they could arrive as early as 9 a.m. Saturday, potentially beating Marrs there — barely.
The ever-so-quiet Joar Ulsom gave chase to Marrs after completing his 24-hour rest, just two hours behind. Ulsom, who unlike Marrs could not avoid the heat of the day Friday, was seen leaving Galena with a bale of straw, indicating that the Norwegian will most likely follow a similar strategy to Marrs, bypassing Huslia en route to Koyukuk.
However there's always the possibility that Ulsom could pull a Lance Mackey (the four-time champion tossed his bale of straw aside in the 2009 race, essentially telling all his competitors to come get him, a move that turned out to be the deciding one in a race won by Mackey). Making a straight run to Huslia would be Ulsom's version of the strategy, and he could come close to chasing down Dallas Seavey and arrive in Huslia just behind him.
The other musher leading the chase pack with Ulsom is resting comfortably in Huslia after running there right after his mandatory eight-hour rest in Galena. That's the unpredictable Nicolas Petit.
In an interview with Petit on Iditarod Insider, the Girdwood musher is grinning ear to ear, claiming his team is "a pleasure to drive." Petit is strategically avoiding the hot sun and has set himself up for a long run throughout the night from Huslia to Koyukuk. Petit is never bashful about stringing together long runs. With Petit having already taken his eight-hour rest in Galena, look for him to be neck and neck with Ulsom when leaving Koyukuk, only hours behind the leaders.
This race is far from over and the tricks and gamesmanship are just beginning. If Marrs and Ulsom can keep their runs under seven hours and arrive in Koyukuk within an hour or two of the Seavey duo, we're set up for an incredible treat over the final 350 miles.
Any of these teams could win, and there are 10 teams behind them willing to pounce at the first sign of weakness.
The remainder of the top 10 as of midday Friday includes:
– Jessie Royer – three hours off the pace.
– Ray Redington – four hours off the pace.
– Michelle Phillips – 4:45 off the pace.
– Jason Mackey — 4:45 off the pace.
– Jeff King — 4:45 off the pace.
Rookie of the year watch
Frenchman Nicolas Vanier, who has yet to take any of his mandatory rest, has cemented himself as the rabbit of the rookie field (he's the only rookie to have ventured past Galena). But perhaps the best rookie-of-the-year candidate is parked 50 miles back in Galena.
Sebastian Verngaud, the second Frenchman, is leading the youngest of the Redington brothers, Robert, by a few hours, due to Verngaud having already taken his mandatory eight-hour rest. Both of these mushers have put themselves into top-20 contention — a very strong rookie finish.
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.