Jake Berkowitz: Iditarod is blown wide open on the Bering Sea coast as Kaiser takes the lead

For the second year in a row, the Iditarod has been blown wide open on the trail between Shaktoolik and Koyuk. Pete Kaiser of Bethel raced past a resting Nicolas Petit on Monday morning and took control of the race.

Petit, who has been the leader for most of the race and was the clear favorite to win after he left Unalakleet on Sunday with a two-hour lead, had a blazing fast run of just over five hours over the Blueberry Hills and into Shaktoolik. As expected, Petit did not stay long in the village — he left after just eight minutes and started his trek to Koyuk.

The problems for Petit didn’t begin until about 12 miles outside of Shaktoolik. Petit’s tracker, which was consistently pinging around 8 mph, suddenly dropped to under 1 mph, and we began to watch via the Iditarod GPS tracker something no one was expecting: Petit was no longer in control. He continued to post speeds of 1 mph or less for about 30 minutes, then finally dropped to a speed of 0 and a subsequent rest. Petit was just 2 miles shy of the Shelter Cabin where he rested last year, and it was becoming clear that his rest on the open sea ice was not planned.

Kaiser and defending champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom both dashed through Unalakleet on Sunday night, with Jessie Royer following them, and headed straight for Shaktoolik. Kaiser, the fastest of the trio, posted an identical time to then-leader Petit of 5 hours, 9 minutes. Leifseth Ulsom pulled into Shaktoolik 12 minutes off Kaiser’s pace and Royer was 30 minutes off pace. Kaiser and Leifseth Ulsom stayed just over 3.5 hours in the village and set out to chase down the resting Petit.

At this point, we do not know if they knew of Petit’s unplanned rest on the ice or if this was just the beginning of an aggressive push up the coast in hopes of catching Petit. Kaiser and Leifseth Ulsom made quick work of the 13 miles that separated them and Petit, and at 3 a.m. Kaiser passed Petit, shortly followed by Leifseth Ulsom, and took the lead of the 2019 Iditarod.

For the second year in a row, Petit has now lost the lead on Norton Sound. He quickly got moving and tried to chase the dynamic duo of Kaiser and Leifseth Ulsom, just as he had done on the Yukon River a couple hundred miles earlier, but it quickly became evident that something was not right. He continued to post speeds of just over 2 mph and was quickly left behind. Two miles later Petit pulled over at the Shelter Cabin, the spot he was most likely aiming for last night, and is currently resting again, putting himself far behind. Reports have come back that Petit and team are OK, but short of that we do not know what has transpired on the Bering Sea.

Perhaps the entire state of Alaska will be able to hear the cheers from the Kuskokwim River and the village of Bethel, where four-time Kuskokwim 300 champion Kaiser was born, raised and is currently raising his own family.

At this point Kaiser is in control of the race with the fastest team in the top five, and he is leading the way into Koyuk, where he will most likely stop and take a well-deserved break. But Leifseth Ulsom is close behind and Royer is about 2 hours off pace, and one wrong move can quickly determine the outcome. With Royer’s longer rest and slower run times, she will have to pull off some exceptionally long runs and shorter rests to be in contention for the win at this point, so for now Royer looks to be a lock for third place. Kaiser and Leifseth Ulsom at this point look to be the two mushers racing to be first under the burled arch in Nome.

Kaiser, who passed Leifseth Ulsom last night on their way into Unalakleet, extended his lead on the way into Shaktoolik and is now pulling away from Leifseth Ulsom as they cross Norton Sound. Kaiser clearly has the speed advantage, which is moving the race in his favor, but Leifseth Ulsom has the benefit of being the defending champion and the confidence that comes with it.

With such a heated race with two tough mushers who have been friends and competitors for years, we can expect quite the show on the way into Nome, and more than likely we will see these two make a big push by blowing through Elim and making the run from Koyuk to White Mountain in one shot. The number of moves a musher can make are quickly diminishing, and we’ll want to keep an eye on who will cut rest in Koyuk and who will blow through Elim. After that, it comes down to who has the fastest team.