KOYUK — Mitch Seavey and his 12-dog team continued to lead the Iditarod on Monday, leaving the front-of-the-pack mushers who chose to rest at the checkpoint here doubting their ability to catch up.
By suppertime Tuesday, the 57-year-old Seavey may be both the oldest and fastest champion in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race's 45-year history.
"I have to be realistic," said Nicolas Petit of Girdwood, who pulled into Koyuk second with his 13 sled dogs at 9:01 a.m. "There's no way I'm going to catch Mitch. He's banking more and more rest and he himself is starting to look more rested than he was earlier in the race.
"He's so far ahead, he can lay off and gain more rest and more speed."
Petit, 37, gave chase to Seavey up the coast out of Koyuk, following him into Elim, 48 miles away, but reaching the checkpoint about three hours behind the race leader. They had 123 miles to go until the finish line.
Seavey's son and four-time Iditarod champion, Dallas, arrived third in Koyuk, but only stopped for eight minutes, instead deciding to rest on the trail on the way to Elim. In his minutes here, Dallas shoved bags of dog booties, food, straw and Capri Suns into his sled bag and dropped a dog, bringing his team down to 11.
"They are just cruising right along like they like mushing or something," he said in the community of about 330 on the Norton Sound coast, as temperatures dipped to about 10 degrees.
Dallas started this race with a high-tech sled he likened to an F-22 fighter jet that allowed him to carry several dogs while racing down the trail. He has since downsized to a more traditional race sled, but said he continued to rotate leaders into the sled bag for a break, calling it "supercharging."
Sunday night in Unalakleet, Dallas Seavey said it would take "something insane" to beat his dad, and that was "unrealistic" to expect from his dog team.
About 30 minutes after Seavey left Koyuk on Monday afternoon, the fourth musher, Joar Leifseth Ulsom, pulled in to rest for just under three hours. At this point, he said, he had no plans to try to catch the elder Seavey.
"I don't think that's possible unless something very bad happens to him," said Ulsom, of Norway. Ulsom said he hoped to hold onto his position. He left Koyuk with eight dogs.
Wade Marrs of Willow arrived in fifth, two hours after Ulsom. He said he could pinpoint one significant move Mitch Seavey made to give him an advantage over the field — taking his 24-hour break farther down the trail, in Huslia.
"I think that really helped Mitch. Obviously he had the dog team coming in and had them trained right and all that good stuff, but I think as far as how the race went, that was probably his biggest advantage point," said Marrs, who left Koyuk with a 12-dog team.
Marrs and Dallas Seavey both took their daylong layover earlier, in Ruby. Both said in interviews Sunday that the trail to Huslia had broken down by the time they raced north — an eggshell-like crust on the top giving way to sugar-like snow that slowed their teams down to a crawl in the warm sun.
Petit said it appeared that the way to win this year's Iditarod was to strategically haul dogs — something both Seaveys did much of the way.
"That's what it takes to win the Iditarod this year," he said.
The mushers in Koyuk on Monday described conditions on the trail up the Norton Sound coast as "beautiful," a departure from the strong coastal winds teams often face. But jumbled ice marked the last part of the trail coming into the checkpoint here, and Petit said he nearly tipped his sled.
Jessie Royer, who lives in both Fairbanks and Montana, said it was still the nicest conditions she had seen in years. Royer came into Koyuk sixth, at 2:08 p.m., with 16 dogs — as many as she started the race with. She described her full dog team as a combination of good training and good luck. While she didn't expect that a 16-dog team would increase her speed, she said it did free up her options for how to craft her race strategy moving forward.
After Royer, nearly six hours passed until the next musher arrived, Ray Redington Jr.
"I find it interesting that there's this much of a gap because usually there isn't," Royer said. "Usually it's just everyone is beating down the door on everybody."
By Monday evening, Mitch Seavey had left Elim, headed to White Mountain, where all mushers will take their final mandatory eight-hour layover before the final 77-mile push to Nome.