Skip to main Content

Zirkle takes over Iditarod lead while Petit hangs back at Ophir

  • Author: Beth Bragg
  • Updated: March 6
  • Published March 5

Lance Mackey arrives in Nikolai in the evening during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on March 5, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN)

UPDATE, 4:15 p.m. -- Shaynee Traska of Gladwin, Michigan, scratched Wednesday afternoon in Nikolai. She was down to 10 dogs when she decided to end her race. Traska was running her second Iditarod; she placed 48th last year.

Meanwhile, the Berington twins reached Ophir within one minute of each other, with Anna arriving at 3:42 p.m. with a full team of 14 dogs and Kristy arriving at 3:34 p.m. with 12 dogs. They’re part of a small group at the checkpoint -- Nic Petit, Jessie Holmes, Aaron Burmeister and Martin Buser.

Petit has been at the checkpoint since 1:08 a.m. Wednesday, which means he’s probably taking his 24-hour layover there.

UPDATE, 12:35 p.m.: Two Rivers musher Aliy Zirkle raced out of Ophir to take the race lead Wednesday morning as Girdwood’s Nic Petit hung back at the checkpoint.

Zirkle arrived at Ophir at 6:04 a.m., about five hours after Petit did. She left the checkpoint with 14 dogs at 8:09 a.m. after resting for about two hours.

Jessie Holmes reached Ophir at 7:20 a.m., Aaron Burmeister at 8:48 a.m. and Martin Buser at 12:12 p.m. (That’s quite a recovery for Holmes, who’s now third in the race standings: Earlier in the race at the Rainy Pass checkpoint, he was working to repair his broken sled.) No other mushers have reached Ophir so far.

Zirkle is seeking to be the first woman to win the Iditarod in nearly three decades, and the third overall. (The last time a woman won the race was in 1990, the year of Susan Butcher’s fourth victory.)

Ophir is about 80 miles from the next checkpoint, Iditarod.

UPDATE, 3:30 a.m.: Nic Petit was in Ophir and Aliy Zirkle was en route early Wednesday morning as the Iditarod headed into its fourth day.

Meanwhile, defending champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom was taking his mandatory 24-hour layover in Takotna, according to an Iditarod Insider video. Leifseth Ulsom reached Takotna at 7:08 p.m. Tuesday.

Petit’s team reached Ophir at 1:08 a.m. He was driving 14 dogs.

ZIrkle, a three-time runnerup from Two Rivers, left Takotna at 2:35 a.m. with 14 dogs. It’s a 23-mile run to Ophir, 352 miles into the race. Petit, the 2018 runner-up from Girdwood, made the run in 3 hours, 3 minutes.

Still in Takotna with Leifseth Ulsom -- who took his 24 hours in Iditarod last year -- were at least eight mushers, including three-time champion Mitch Seavey. Also in Takotna were Jessie Royer, Pete Kaiser, Matt Hall, Richie Diehl, Ryan Redington, Matthew Failor, Paige Drobny and Mats Pettersson.

From Ophir it’s a long 80 miles to the next checkpoint, Iditarod, the halfway point of this year’s race.

Martin Apayauq Reitan rides over an icy portion of trail on the South Fork Kuskokwim River. Mushers and teams running near the back of the Iditarod race field rested at the Rohn checkpoint on March 5, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN)

UPDATE, 11 p.m.: Nic Petit, who took a four-hour break in McGrath while three other mushers pressed on to Takotna earlier in the evening, reclaimed the Iditarod trail lead late Tuesday night.

The Girdwood musher left Takotna with a full team of 14 dogs at 10:04 p.m after staying long enough to check in and out. Remaining at the checkpoint were previous trail leader Joar Leifseth Ulsom of Norway, Jessie Royer of Fairbanks and Pete Kaiser of Bethel.

Of the first four mushers to reach Takotna, Leifseth Ulsom had the fastest time on the 18-mile run from McGrath. He made the trip in 2 hours, 19 minutes. Petit and Royer both did it in 2:31, and Kaiser made it in 2:35.

From Takotna mushers head to Ophir, 23 miles away. After that comes a long run to Cripple.

The Iditarod checkpoint in Nikolai fills up on Tuesday afternoon, March 5, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN)


The reboot of Trading Places premiered Tuesday, starring Iditarod mushers Nic Petit and Joar Leifseth Ulsom.

Three times in less than 24 hours, the two men traded the lead in the 1,000-mile race to Nome.

First Petit was the trail leader. Then Leifseth Ulsom. Then Petit. Then Leifseth Ulsom.

The race reached Takotna, 329 miles into the race, Tuesday night, when Leifseth Ulsom arrived at 7:08 p.m. with a team of 13 dogs. Petit was still resting in McGrath at the time.

No matter which man is leading, they are traveling at record pace.

Petit, the Girdwood musher who was last year’s runner-up, reached McGrath at 3:17 p.m. Tuesday — about 2.5 hours ahead of the pace of the 2011 race, when John Baker set the record for the Iditarod’s southern route. That year, Martin Buser reached McGrath in the lead at 5:55 p.m.

Petit’s arrival time was more than three hours earlier than Dallas Seavey’s check-in time in 2016. Seavey got to McGrath at 6:34 p.m. that year, when he set the northern route record. (Mitch Seavey’s record run in 2017 came on a route that didn’t include McGrath, because the race started in Fairbanks.)

Leifseth Ulsom, the defending champion from Norway, is also ahead of the 2011 and 2016 race pace. He reached McGrath at 4:45 p.m. He left four minutes later at 4:49 p.m.

Jessica Klejka collects hot water during her stop in Nikolai during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on March 5, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Two other mushers reached McGrath and quickly moved on Tuesday evening. Jessie Royer of Fairbanks checked out at 6:44 p.m. after a four-minute stay and Pete Kaiser Bethel blasted through at 7:24 p.m., stopping for one minute.

As fast as the trail leaders are moving, they didn’t match fat-tire biker Tyson Flaharty’s winning time last week in the Iditarod Trail Invitational.

Flaharty rode from Knik Lake to McGrath in less than 48 hours. Iditarod mushers started a bit farther north at Willow Lake, where Petit’s race started Sunday at 2:36 p.m. He made it to McGrath in two days plus 41 minutes.

Both the Knik-to-McGrath route and the Willow-to-McGrath route are considered 300 miles, according to GPS readings.

Petit led the race in and out of Rohn on Monday night, but sometime overnight, Leifseth Ulsom passed him on the way to Nikolai.

Led by lead dogs Jaeger and Olive, Leifseth Ulsom reached Nikolai at 6:36 a.m. with 13 dogs. After taking care of his team, he settled down for a breakfast of pancake, eggs, sausage and potatoes in the multipurpose room at the local school.

He said he didn’t see Petit when he passed him on the run from Rohn, a 75-mile stretch of trail he called “interesting.” There was open water and stretches of gravel and dirt, he said, and a strong wind almost knocked him off the trail a few times.

"We would have gone sailing," Leifseth Ulsom said.

Daryl Petruska, first chief of the Nikolai Edzeno’ Tribal Council, presented Leifseth Ulsom with mittens made from beaver fur and moose hide.

"Wow, they're beautiful," Leifseth Ulsom told him.

Joar Leifseth Ulsom receives mitts made of beaver fur and moose hide from Daryl Petruska, first chief of the Nikolai Edzeno' Tribal Council, on Tuesday for being the first musher to reach Nikolai. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Petruska also gave Leifseth Ulsom a thick blanket from Alaska Air Transit.

Then Leifseth Ulsom settled in for a nap. While he was sleeping, Petit arrived at 9:04 a.m., stayed for four minutes, and then stole away. Leifseth Ulsom followed at 10:37 a.m.

Petit led the way into McGrath to win his own pair of beaver mitts.

As the first racer to arrive in McGrath, Petit claimed the Alaska Air Transit Spirit of Iditarod Award, which comes with a pair of beaver mitts and a hat made by local residents Loretta Maillelle and Rosalie Egrass.

The next big prize at stake is the GCI Dorothy G. Page Halfway Award, which goes to the first musher to reach the ghost town of Iditarod at mile 432. That prize traditionally includes $3,000 in gold, although an Iditarod spokeswoman Tuesday said award sponsors are still finalizing the details of this year’s prizes.

ADN reporter Tegan Hanlon contributed from Nikolai.

This article has been edited to show that Mitch Seavey’s record-setting Iditarod victory came in 2017, not 2018.

Iditarod Coverage

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.