A familiar face is out in front once again in the Iditarod. Defending champion Mitch Seavey claimed the first official award on the trail, the Pen Air Spirit of Alaska Award presented to the first musher to reach the village of McGrath.
Early Tuesday morning, just in time for breakfast, it was a different face at the front. Ryan Redington was the first to reach Nikolai and officially put the daunting Alaska Range in his rearview mirror. Redington was shortly followed by Nicolas Petit, Mitch Seavey, Joar Ulsom, and his brother Ray Redington to round out Iditarod's top 5 at that point.
With few or no horror stories from the Alaska Range this year, the topic on all mushers' minds is snow. In an Iditarod Insider video, Seavey claimed it was the most snow he has ever seen past Rohn.
Redington discussed the lack of trail for the final 30 miles coming into the village because of high winds and snow, and throughout the Nikolai dog lot you could hear mushers lamenting about slow trail conditions.
But even though the trail into Nikolai seemed slow, run times were right on pace from 2016. In fact, the majority of the top 10 are all well ahead of their 2016 Iditarod schedules; only Wade Marrs and Aliy Zirkle are running slightly slower.
So what's next?
Perhaps one of the biggest and most strategic decisions of the race is where mushers will take their mandatory 24-hour rest. This is one of three mandatory rests, along with an eight-hour layover anywhere on the Yukon River and an eight-hour rest in White Mountain before the final push to Nome.
Most teams will likely take their mandatory 24-hour rest within the next 80 miles at either McGrath, Takotna or Ophir. There is always a handful of teams that will push on toward the checkpoint of Iditarod, and there perhaps could be someone who pushes all the way to the Yukon River. Petit hinted at as much before the race when he explained that he was set up to take his 24 anywhere from the start of the race all the way to Kaltag. Petit said that if the trail was good and the dogs were healthy, he didn't see any reason to stop.
With slightly slower trail conditions combined with the forecast of warmer weather and snow on the Yukon River, we more than likely we will see the majority of mushers run from Nikolai through McGrath to Takotna and declare their 24-hour rest there.
Marrs, on the other hand, told the Iditarod Insider he will most like declare his 24-hour rest in McGrath, which is what he has done every year but one, and that time ended in a scratch.
Aaron Burmeister, who jumped into the Top 10 early today, is running an unusual schedule and was the only musher to skip Nikolai, putting in the longest of run of the race up to this point.
Who to watch:
You do not want to give him a lead. As he showed last year, he is the fastest team the Bering Sea coast has ever seen. Everyone who wants to win knows they have to beat Seavey, and everyone knows they aren't likely going to beat him in the final 200 miles. Keep a close eye on how far ahead the chase pack is willing to let Seavey get.
The one weakness Seavey is showing is the size of his team. He's down to 13 dogs, which isn't a big issue, but Seavey is known for carrying dogs for the first 700 miles of the race. As his dog numbers drop, the number of dogs he can carry will also decrease, which may impact his speed in the final stages of the Iditarod.
With only a few miles separating Ulsom and Seavey on Tuesday evening, this is the closest Ulsom has ever been to the front this early in the race. He usually surges later on, but if Ulsom can keep Seavey close he may just cause Seavey to start looking over his shoulder.
Ulsom is also not known for being the fastest team in the race, but surprisingly he posted the fast run time from Rohn to Nikolai.
It seems like it's about time for Petit to make a bold move — he has run a bold-move-free race so far and is still 1.5 hours ahead of his 2016 race. If Petit ends up pushing far to take his 24-hour rest, that could be a game-changer. He could either set the trail up for the teams behind him, or he could forge further up the trail before more snow falls and slows the trail even more. Keep a close eye on him Tuesday night and throughout Wednesday.
Where is the King? The four-time champion has been following a very conservative schedule and was sitting in 27th place with a fairly slow run time into Nikolai. The chance of King pulling off his fifth win is slim to none, although in recent years he has stayed way back early on and pushed hard later in the race, just barely missing the top 10 last year. If King wants to get his 21st top-10 finish, he better start making some moves.