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Difficult or desperate Iditarod strategy may be needed to catch Mitch Seavey

  • Author: Jake Berkowitz
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published March 12, 2017

Iditarod musher Cody Strathe tends to his team at the Nulato checkpoint Sunday. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

Wade Marrs, once the leader of the 2017 Iditarod, is down to one option in an effort to try and run down two-time champion Mitch Seavey.

Iditarod Insider caught up to Marrs Saturday night while he was resting between Huslia and Koyukuk, where he said: "Looking at Dallas's (Seavey) team I might be racing for second."

Marrs then went on to break down the rest of the competition. "(B)ehind me I have the craziest guy in the race (Nicolas Petit) who seems to pull off everything he tries, I got the best dog team behind me with Mitch (Seavey) and I have the best dog driver in the world behind me with Dallas…."

Marrs is in a Seavey Sandwich, accompanied by Petit — Mitch Seavey out front with Dallas behind after a two-hour rest along the Kaltag Portage to Unalakleet.

All four reached Unalakleet within 22 minutes of each other Sunday, with Marrs winning his second award of this Iditarod — First to the Bering Sea Coast.

It's an award Marrs will cherish, but not the prize he really wants.

But the options going forward are limited, and the Three Musketeers — Marrs, Petit, and Joar Ulsom — are well aware of that. With both Seaveys resting on the trails between Kaltag and Unalakleet, they have told their competition that they will go from Kaltag to White Mountain in four runs — a strategy they used to decimate the competition a year ago.

Ken Anderson arrives at the Nulato checkpoint as the sun breaks through a fog bank Sunday. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

Four-run Strategy

1. Kaltag to short of Unalakleet (60 miles)

2. Short of Unalakleet to Shaktoolik (60 Miles)

3. Shaktoolik to halfway between Koyuk and Elim, weather permitting (75 miles)

4. Halfway between Koyuk and Elim to White Mountain – where all mushers will take their final mandatory rest of eight hours before the final 70-push to Nome (70 miles)

The Three Musketeers are all slower than the elder Seavey, with Marrs the slowest in the group and Petit and Ulsom running nearly identical speeds. So their only shot at winning is to cut out one rest the Seaveys will need to take.

Marrs and Petit will need to execute a very risky plan over the race's final miles — a strategy even more aggressive than the one that Eureka's Brent Sass tried to execute last year. It failed miserably when his dogs refused to run out of White Mountain. After they took a long rest, Sass barely made the top-20.

In fact, no musher in this group has ever done this stretch in three runs, but it's a gambit that's been tried before — most successfully by Ramey Smyth in 2011 in an effort to chase down John Baker, who went on to become the first Inupiaq musher to win the Iditarod.

Smyth ended up resting less than six hours between Kaltag and White Mountain, finishing a close second behind Baker, something Petit or Marrs will need to pull off if they want a shot at Mitch Seavey.

Three-run Strategy

1. Kaltag to Unalakleet (85 miles)

2. Unalakleet to Koyuk (90 miles)

3. Koyuk to White Mountain (94 miles)

So where does that leave boy wonder Dallas Seavey? The defending Iditarod champion realizes his only chance of beating his father is to run the same schedule, but cut his rests significantly shorter.

Dallas, Petit and Ulsom all seem to be travelling roughly the same speed, and with neither Seavey still carrying dogs, we now know what everyone has left in the tank. At this juncture, they're all slower than the 57-year-old, who ran to his camping spot 62 miles out of Kaltag 50 minutes faster than anyone else in the top five.

Marrs was slowest of that group, 80 minutes off the pace. Dallas Seavey, who somehow always seems to know exactly what cards his competitors can play, knows how much slower he is than his father with only 270 miles between Kaltag and White Mountain and only three rests planned.

Dallas will need to cut off 3.5 hours off his father's rest to get him to White Mountain at the same time, a tall order for anyone — even him.

The ball is in Mitch Seavey's hands. But with a talented chase pack and the closest top five we have seen in years, one mistake could determine the outcome.

Iditarod musher Ryan Redington arrives at the Nulato checkpoint as the sun breaks through a fog bank Sunday. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

Rookie of the year battle

The French musher Sebastian Verngaud, who reached Kaltag in 17th place, has maintained a nearly two-hour lead over Robert Redington much of the race. If Redington pulls off a come-from- behind win over Verngaud to claim rookie of the year honors, the grandson will make Iditarod founder, Joe Redington Sr., beam from above — perhaps only slightly more than he already is seeing three grandsons close in on the Bering Sea Coast within 30 miles of each other.

A week ago, Verngaud left spectators in Fairbanks wondering if he thought he was at the ceremonial start once again, leaving the starting line with only 12 dogs (Iditarod rules permit 16, which is how many most musher start with). If he can secure rookie of the year honors, it will be one of the greatest rookie performances in the history of the race — up with the classic efforts by the Norwegian trio of Robert Sorlie, Bjornar Andersen and Ulsom, who all won rookie of the year while placing in the Top 10.

Verngaud arrived into Kaltag with 11 of the 12 dogs still on the line.

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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