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Jake Berkowitz: Can Seavey steal victory from Petit?

  • Author: Jake Berkowitz
  • Updated: March 12, 2018
  • Published March 11, 2018

What has looked like a three-man race since McGrath quickly changed on the Kaltag Portage and now appears to be a duel between the Frenchman Nicolas Petit and the Norwegian Joar Ulsom, with the edge going to the Frenchman. (Petit, who lists his hometown as Girdwood, grew up in Normandy.)

While these two appear to be in control of the 2018 Iditarod and are racing for the checkered flag in Nome, 260 miles away, it appears that defending champion Mitch Seavey was waving the white flag at Old Woman Cabin in an attempt to hold onto third place.

While anything can happen in the Iditarod, especially on the Bering Sea coast, barring a major disaster or some serious magic and trickery from Seavey, the race will most likely crown a new champion.

Petit, who has been leading the majority of the race since the halfway point at the Iditarod checkpoint (Mile 432), departed Kaltag at 2:43 a.m. Sunday after a luxurious six-hour break. Arriving 30 minutes later were Ulsom and Seavey, who both cut rest and stayed 4.5 hours in an effort to stay close to the lead.

As the top three made their way to the first checkpoint on the Bering Sea, it looked like all three teams were evenly matched. But after six short hours, Seavey pulled over at Old Woman Cabin — halfway between Kaltag and Unalakleet.

Seavey is known for camping on the Kaltag Portage and breaking the run from Kaltag to Shaktoolik up into two even runs (in fact, he hasn't stopped in Unalakleet since 2014), but this year's move is abnormal for him and leaves him with a monster 80-mile run to Shaktoolik if he wants to stay with his previous strategies and stay in the hunt.

While the race is far from over, the options to overtake Petit are getting limited.

Petit’s options (Kaltag to White Mountain and the mandatory 8)

Petit is in the driver's seat and is the only musher who could deploy a monster three-run strategy to Nome:

Option A — 3 runs: Petit is the only musher in the top three who has the option of a major push to White Mountain. He made the run from Kaltag to Unalakleet with a solid 11-hour run on the portage. Petit, who has never deployed this strategy on the coast, could bypass Shaktoolik and Elim and go from Unalakleet to White Mountain in two even runs. If Petit can pull this off and maintain his speed, he will be the next Iditarod champion.

Option B — 4  runs: Petit, who rested in Unalakleet, could choose to skip Shaktoolik and rest in Elim or the other way around. If he deploys this strategy, it will open the race back up to either Ulsom or Seavey if either of them take the four-run approach.

Option C — 5 runs: Since it is Petit, we need as many options as possible and even these three might not be enough. But after his big run to Unalakleet, Petit could run checkpoint to checkpoint on the coast in an effort to keep his speed and beat Ulsom and Seavey solely based on dog speed (something the top three seem even in).

Joar Leifseth Ulsom sleeps on his sled with his team on the Yukon River between Grayling and Kaltag on Saturday, March 10, 2018. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Ulsom’s Options (Kaltag to White Mountain and the mandatory 8)

Ulsom, who is deploying the strategy that Seavey has used the last few years, will most likely make four runs from Kaltag to White Mountain:

Option A — 4 runs: Ulsom, who camped 22 miles outside of Unalakleet, will most likely blow through Unalakleet and run straight to Shaktoolik with two even runs from Kaltag. Ulsom's options are then limited to either skipping Koyuk and making two even runs to White Mountain from Shaktoolik, or resting in Koyuk and then making a big push to White Mountain in one shot. If Ulsom wants to chase down Petit, he will need to execute a four-run strategy.

Option B — 5 runs: Ulsom will most likely leave his current resting spot short of Unalakleet and run to Shaktoolik. He could run checkpoint to checkpoint until White Mountain depending on his team's needs and how hard Petit is pushing.

Mitch Seavey waits for the countdown to finish before leaving the Takotna checkpoint on Wednesday, March 7, 2018, after he completed his mandatory 24-hour rest. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Seavey’s Options (Kaltag to White Mountain and the mandatory 8)

Seavey's best-case scenario is four runs from Kaltag to White Mountain:

Option A — 4 runs: Seavey could make the big push to Shaktoolik in one shot from Old Woman Cabin, rest and then if the weather is isn't too brutal, blow through Koyuk and split the run from Shaktoolik to White Mountain into two even runs and blow through Elim. He could also run to Unalakleet, shut it down and then run straight to Koyuk, rest and then run straight to White Mountain. His other four-run option is to run from Old Woman Cabin to the Shelter Cabin on top of of the Blueberry Hills (between Unalakleet and Shaktoolik), rest there and then push to Koyuk, finishing with a big run to White Mountain. If Seavey wants any shot at the championship he will need to deploy a four-run strategy to take down Petit.

Option B — 5 runs: Seavey could run to Unalakleet and then shut his team down after two even runs from Kaltag. Seavey then could run to Shaktoolik and rest, go to Koyuk and rest, and then skip Elim and push to White Mountain. Seavey could also skip Shaktoolik and rest in Elim instead.

Option C — 6 runs: Seavey could run checkpoint to checkpoint for the remainder of the race. This option will be deployed only if he realized he has no chance of winning.