‘I started bawling’: As Leifseth Ulsom prepares for finish, Petit recalls the moment he lost the Iditarod lead

Hi, everyone! Tegan w/ ADN here. I’m in White Mountain, a community 77 miles away from the Nome finish line. Joar Leifseth Ulsom and his team arrived this morning. Nic Petit and his dogs recently pulled in.

Posted by Anchorage Daily News on Tuesday, March 13, 2018

ADN Iditarod reporter Tegan Hanlon was on Facebook Live from White Mountain as second-place Nic Petit arrived at the checkpoint.

WHITE MOUNTAIN — Joar Leifseth Ulsom never needed a warmup. From his first Iditarod in 2013, when he busted the record for fastest finish ever by a rookie, to placing fourth last year, the 31-year-old runs at the front of the pack.

Suddenly, today, he stands alone. Leifseth Ulsom arrived in White Mountain at 7:52 a.m., 3 1/2 hours ahead of Nic Petit of Girdwood. Petit pulled in at 11:22 a.m., heartbroken having lost the lead after making a wrong turn along the coast.

"I started bawling like a little baby. This race can be an emotional roller coaster," Petit said.

With a mandatory eight-hour rest to recharge and just 77 miles of trail to go before the finish line in Nome, only a major mishap would prevent Leifseth Ulsom from his first Iditarod win.

"Looking good," the race marshal said as the musher arrived bundled and frosty in White Mountain, according to footage posted by Iditarod Insider. "They've been running fantastic," Leifseth Ulsom replied.

Leifseth Ulsom enjoyed a "problem-free" trip into the checkpoint, he told the Insider. The racer happily threw straw for his dogs to sleep on. The huskies, whiskers icy, licked his face.

Later, as Petit approached the riverside village, Leifseth Ulsom napped in the rust-colored White Mountain city office. A chalkboard had his wake-up call time marked as "13:52."

Outside, his dogs lay curled in piles of straw. The temperature was about 10 degrees.

Nordman, the race director, said Leifseth Ulsom arrived at the checkpoint with 13 dogs and they looked happy. "He bedded them all down, did a couple interviews, made a big meal and now he's got a big smile on his face."

‘Everybody knows what my dogs did’

Petit and his 11 dogs pulled into the community of about 200 people at 11:22 a.m.. He said blowing snow swamped the trail after Shaktoolik (mile 777) where he lost his way.

He couldn't find the trail markers — wooden stakes with orange tips, reflective tape and blue ribbons tied to them. There are also similar markers for February's Iron Dog snowmachine race in the area.

When Petit did find a marker, he said, he followed it.

"I didn't realize half of them were Iron Dog markers and then there's a hunting trail, it's just a snowmachine trail and I'm like, 'Welp, whoever is traveling right here is going the same direction we are.' So I hopped on it and then it ended at land," Petit said while he waited for a pot of water to boil at the checkpoint here.

He said he ran into the coast, did a lap on land looking for the Iditarod trail and went back onto the sea ice. He said he worried about open water so he didn't want to go too far west. He turned on his GPS and started going in the general direction of the next checkpoint, Koyuk, eventually finding the trail.

The whole thing — an approximate 8-mile, 1.5-hour detour — was taxing on his team, he said.

"It was one of those red lines that didn't blow the engine, but I can't do it again," Petit said. "I can't push my team. People usually save that for this push (to Nome), but I pushed in the wrong direction."

At White Mountain, he complained aloud about the poorly marked trail, saying whoever was responsible needed a seminar. He said while, sure, anything could happen, he didn't expect to win the 2018 Iditarod.

'I'd have to go 25 mph the whole time," he said. "That's not going to happen."

On the trail out of Elim, the next checkpoint after Koyuk, Petit said it hit him that he had lost the lead permanently. He said he cried.

"I just let out what I needed to let out and then pulled my head out of my rear end and went back to just doing what I do with my dogs," he said. "Because who cares? Everybody knows what my dogs did."

Petit said that while there is plenty of racing left, he has to be realistic about the slim chances of a comeback victory this late in the race. (It happened in 2014 when Dallas Seavey overcame Jeff King and Aliy Zirkle in a storm.)

Race judge and Iditarod veteran Karen Ramstead said each of this year's top three teams — Leifseth Ulsom, Petit and Mitch Seavey — rely on different racing styles. The dogs' personalities, she said, reflect those of the mushers.

"If you look at Nic's team, they're kind of wild and a little crazy and out of control and that's a lot like Nic," she said Monday. Seavey's team? Disciplined and focused.

"And Joar's team," Ramstead said, "is kind of quiet and driven."

Leifseth Ulsom will be able to leave White Mountain at 3:52 p.m. Racers often take eight to 10 hours to reach Nome from here, making for an early-morning Wednesday finish.

Kyle Hopkins

Kyle Hopkins is special projects editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He was the lead reporter on the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lawless" project and is part of an ongoing collaboration between the ADN and ProPublica's Local Reporting Network. He joined the ADN in 2004 and was also an editor and investigative reporter at KTUU-TV. Email

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.