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Iditarod

The race to the Yukon River is on, and Girdwood’s Nic Petit is in the lead

IDITAROD — At the abandoned mining town here late Thursday afternoon, all was quiet.

Norwegian musher Joar Leifseth Ulsom slept in a cabin, more than halfway into his mandatory 24-hour break in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Defending champion Mitch Seavey of Sterling sorted through his sled bag just down a small, snowy hill, his dogs resting in straw. Right next to him, Girdwood musher Nic Petit tossed out dog booties that, in a few hours, he would fasten to his dogs' feet when they left to race again.

Behind the cabin where Leifseth Ulsom slept, four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King put straw down for his 14 dogs. He periodically sipped sea salt caramel gelato. With temperatures reaching into the low 30s at times, the gelato had turned into more of a soup.

The mushers were halfway into the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. And, they said, for the deep snow on the trail, the race seemed fast.

"It seems really fast," King said. "I haven't seen a bum-looking dog team yet, and I will tell you if I do. The ones I saw were looking fantastic."

As the few mushers who had reached the checkpoint by Thursday afternoon tended to their dogs or slept, race volunteers and others traveling the trail talked outside or sat inside a cabin, drinking coffee. No one lives in Iditarod, and only a few structures remain in the former gold mining town, including the cabin where Leifseth Ulsom slept and another cabin with a kitchen, a table and bunk beds.

Both Seavey, a three-time champ, and Petit, whose best finish was third place last year, said they feel confident about their dog teams.

"I'm happy with how they're doing. We're rolling," Petit said. "We came in here, two feet on the brake. They were charging, barking, screaming. I'm happy."

A few hours later, Petit was back on the trail, the official race leader now that most of the front-runners have completed their mandatory 24-hour layovers. He drove a team of 14 dogs — booties back on their feet — toward the next checkpoint in Shageluk, 55 miles away.

Petit, who took his layover in McGrath, left at 7:02 p.m. with 14 dogs. Seavey, who took his break in Takotna, followed at 7:46 p.m. with 13 dogs.

Leifseth Ulsom returned to the trail at 9:38 p.m. with  15 dogs, leaving one behind.

Earlier Thursday, Petit and Seavey left Ophir within a minute of each other, but Petit pulled away during the 80-mile run to Iditarod. He got here at 2:28 p.m., nearly an hour ahead of Seavey, who arrived at 3:17 p.m.

Seavey, who led earlier in the race, said in Takotna that he might relinquish the lead in favor of resting his dogs for the Bering Sea coast.

"When you get to the coast, if you're within striking range, he who has the best team wins," he said.

If Seavey is comfortable giving up the lead, Petit is equally at home taking it. In 2017, he won $3,500 and a hearty gourmet meal as the first musher to the Yukon.

A veteran of seven Iditarods, Petit said the trail so far has "more snow than we've ever seen."

"For once I was lucky with the snowmachine traffic," he said. "I wanted some snowmachines, and they came. They put a trail in that was nonexistent before I showed up."

To adjust for temperatures in the 30s, which is warm for a sled dog race, Petit said he's wearing five layers on the trail — a few coats, a sweatshirt and an underlayer. He's pretty warm, he said. But he wants to feel how the dogs feel.

"To have some sympathy for them, when it gets really hot I don't take off all my layers," he said. "That way I feel what they might be feeling and it really helps me because if I'm really too hot, then they're too hot. So if I see a little bit of shade, I stop. And let them hang out in the shade."

Asked who he thought his top competition was, Petit pointed at Seavey, right next to him, and Ulsom, his sled dogs parked up the hill.

Still, there's half a race to go.

"It ain't over," King said. "Anything that can happen in the first half to one person can happen in the second half to somebody else."

This story has been updated to reflect Leifseth Ulsom's departure from Iditarod.

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