Racers deploy dueling run/rest strategies up the Bering Sea coast

Nicolas Petit left the coastal checkpoint of Shaktoolik (mile 777) at 1:09 a.m. today with a 2 hour, 34 minute lead on second-place Mitch Seavey.

But Petit soon chose to rest about 15 miles down the trail. Seavey and Norwegian Joar Leifseth Ulsom closed the gap. Before long it was Seavey's turn to rest as Ulsom chased Petit north along the sea ice of Norton Bay, according to the Iditarod GPS tracker.

The official race description for this treeless stretch of trail? "Bleak, flat, and deadly monotonous." Racers are deploying dueling run/rest strategies up the coast, with Petit holding the advantage thanks to a large head start.

Next stop: Koyuk (mile 827). See full standings here. 

[Jake Berkowitz: Petit is in position to win the Iditarod. Here's how.]

Read the story of how Petit led the Iditarod to the coast, greeted with a hug from DeeDee Jonrowe and a special note from his mom, below.

ORIGINAL STORY: After a note from mom and a rest for his dogs, Iditarod leader Petit heads up Bering Sea coast

UNALAKLEET — Girdwood musher Nic Petit sat down inside the busy checkpoint building here Sunday afternoon with about a four-hour lead over his closest competitor in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

He had a plate stacked with sourdough pancakes and bacon, a glass full of Tang and a pile of musher-grams — notes called into the Iditarod Trail Committee, transcribed and delivered to mushers along the trail.

"I believe in you," read one from Petit's mom. "I love you."

There's still about 260 miles to go to the Nome finish line. The next checkpoints, up the windy Bering Sea coast, are sometimes among the toughest of the race.

Petit said he felt confident in his dog team, but it's still anyone's race.

"I have very qualified mushers behind me with quite the resume and family history," he said.

After a string of wins in middle-distance races this winter, Petit, a 38-year-old born in France, has set the pace for stretches of this slow-paced, relatively drama-free Iditarod. If he's able to hold that lead, he would become the first musher not named Seavey to win the Iditarod in seven years, since John Baker in 2011.

Petit and his 13-dog team got to the Bering Sea community of Unalakleet at 1:40 p.m. Sunday. A sore and tired Mitch Seavey of Sterling and his 11-dog team arrived at 5:58 p.m. and a content Joar Leifseth Ulsom, who lives in Willow, pulled in with 13 dogs at 6:38 p.m.

It's the same group that battled for the top four spots last year, minus four-time champion Dallas Seavey, who is racing in Norway right now.

All three mushers decided to stay and rest in Unalakleet — at least for a few hours.

A checkpoint prepares

Even before Petit arrived, Unalakleet was busy.

Iditarod volunteers, race officials and locals packed two rows of tables at the bustling checkpoint building Sunday morning as residents Aurora and William "Middy" Johnson flipped sourdough pancakes, cooked bacon and brewed coffee.

"As you can see in our checkpoint, we have a lot of people, a lot of noise, a lot of visiting which is great," Middy Johnson said. "It's great for us. It kind of brings the community together."

Johnson competed in the 2010 Iditarod. His grandfather, Henry Ivanoff, was one of the 20 mushers who relayed diphtheria serum to Nome in 1925.

Outside, temperatures hovered around 7 degrees. A group of children went sledding on the snowy hill between the checkpoint building and the trail below that skirts the edge of this Bering Sea town, where about 750 people live.

The bales of straw were stacked. Bags of gear and food were laid out. And the spare sleds that mushers had sent to the checkpoint stood in a line.

"We started up the frying pans this morning and they'll quit sometime Thursday," Johnson said. "We go through about 50 gallons of sourdough starter, a couple hundred pounds of bacon and anything else that people bring in to eat."

$20 for Petit

When Petit pulled in Sunday afternoon, children lined the snowbanks and a crowd formed on a nearby hill. People cheered and took photographs, and DeeDee Jonrowe, who scratched from the race at the Rainy Pass checkpoint, greeted him with a hug.

Petit said he planned to stay for a rest.

"I'm hungry and there's bacon," he said. Plus, "the dogs like checkpoints."

Petit carried one husky, named Kristy, in his sled. His dogs named Jeffery, 4, and Shooby, 3, led the team.

Soon after he arrived, Petit traded his heavy-duty bunny boots for sneakers. He put straw down and used a pocket knife to slice open bags of food and gear, pulling out kibble and frozen meat for his team. A large group of onlookers watched.

As he worked, Petit recounted the moment on the trail when Seavey and Ulsom passed him outside of Grayling, roughly 200 miles away from Unalakleet. He was napping on the ground with Kristy on his chest.

"And then, I didn't even see Mitch go by, I was sleeping through that one," he said. "But I guess it kind of woke me up and then I saw Joar coming, so I said, 'OK, we're going.' "

Petit later passed both teams to reclaim the lead.

"I got to see how they were looking and gained a little bit of confidence," he said.

As he walked up to the checkpoint building here, someone called out,"On behalf of Wells Fargo" and handed Petit a $20 bill. Wells Fargo, which used to award the first musher to Unalakleet $3,500 in gold nuggets, dropped its long-time sponsorship of the race last year.

"Man, Wells Fargo went big this time," Petit said, pocketing the cash. "Thanks."

 A sore Seavey

At 5:58 p.m., three-time champion Seavey arrived and parked his team on the other side of a pile of snow from Petit.

Seavey, 58, said he's "really sore and really tired."

Deep snow has marked much of this year's trail, slowing teams and prompting Seavey and other mushers to push with a ski pole and kick a foot against the ground while traveling to help propel the team forward.

"I've just been trying to work behind the sled since we started," Seavey said. "When it's nice and fast, you sit there."

When Seavey won last year's race in record time, the trail was hard and fast.

This year, he said, his dogs "are performing really well, and that's all I can ask them to do." But, in general, he said, "it's been a really hard race."

"Just the deep snow," he said. "Soft trail forever."

Sunday evening he used an ax to chop apart beef strips that had thawed and refrozen into a giant clump. His son, Danny, and his granddaughter stood nearby.

Seavey said he plans to give chase to Petit. It could be tough, he said, but anything could happen.

"It will be hard to get him, but stranger things have happened," he said.

"He might go out there and sit for 10 hours. He might be lucky to make it to (Shaktoolik) or Koyuk and decide to spend 10 hours there. You never know. But I don't think it's in my power to just make some move if Nic (Petit) keeps moving like he is."

Forty minutes later, Ulsom and his team arrived. The trail is slow, snowy and windy, he said, but he felt happy with his team and his race plan.

Petit might slow down at some point, he said. And, if he did, Ulsom planned to be right behind him.

"Dogs are doing good. Still got 13," Ulsom said. "It's going pretty good."

As Seavey and Ulsom completed their chores here, Petit got his 12 dogs ready — he dropped one — and left at 6:55 p.m. The other two mushers stood up and watched him go.

Then, at 8:20 p.m. Ulsom gave chase. And at 9:16 p.m., Seavey did the same.