FINGER LAKE — As Dallas Seavey mushed toward the finish line with a shot to make history in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, race-savvy competitors behind him were experiencing the trail as if for the first time.
Joar Leifseth Ulsom, the 2018 champion from Norway, fell in love with the Farewell Burn after seeing it in daylight. Michelle Phillips, a Yukon musher striving for her first top-10 finish in 13 races, was surprised by how hilly it was on the way down from Rainy Pass. Skagway’s Ryan Redington, a third-generation musher with 14 starts, was brought to his knees by the climb up the Happy River Steps.
The Iditarod shifted into reverse halfway through this year’s race to limit interaction with villages, a move that sent teams on a return trip across terrain they usually only see when traveling north.
Seavey, a four-time champion from Talkeetna, is making fast work of the 832-mile course, which is about 150 miles shorter than usual. He left Skwentna on Sunday night with a 61-minute lead over Aaron Burmeister, who was born and raised in Nome.
If Seavey maintains command on the 67-mile run to the Deshka Landing finish line, he would match Rick Swenson’s record five Iditarod championships.
Burmeister hoped to chip away at Seavey’s lead on the final stretch.
“We’ll find out what we have,” he said during his break in Skwentna. “This last push was a good, tough run for the dogs, and we’ll see if we can keep chipping away.
“... There were some steep climbs. The Happy River Steps, I’ve done down ‘em 20 times going the other direction, never have gone up ‘em. They are a steep push.”
Seavey was nearly done with his eight-hour layover in Skwentna by the time Redington got there at 8:15 p.m. Sunday in sixth place, and both he and Burmeister were gone by the time Leifseth Ulsom and Phillips arrived, in ninth and 10th place, respectively.
Redington said he barely got through the climb up the Happy River Steps.
“If it was any steeper or any bigger, I think we’d still be there,” he said in Skwentna.
“I had too much weight in my sled. ... I pulled on the gangline, I pulled on the sled, there were times I was on my knees and pushing because I couldn’t get any traction. It was very slick to stand up. But we eventually made it up. And we’re here.”
Wade Marrs, fourth to reach Skwentna, said he was glad to have the second crossing of the Alaska Range behind him.
“It was a pain in the butt,” he said. “It was a lotta hard work for the dogs and myself, but we made it no problem, and here we are.”
While taking a break in Finger Lake earlier on Sunday, Leifseth Ulsom said his return trip across the Farewell Burn was memorable.
“I really enjoyed going through the Burn backwards, especially since I got to do it on the most spectacular day. Beautiful sunshine,” he said. “I can finally see (it). That’s a pretty cool place out there. So I really enjoyed that.”
The fun continued with the climb up Dalzell Gorge, which teams usually experience as a white-knuckle descent.
“It was really, really nice. I was really surprised how smooth it went and how easy it was,” Leifseth Ulsom said. “You know we always go down in a blistering speed, out of control, and going up was just a lot of fun. And I think the dogs liked it too.”
Leifseth Ulsom said one of his dogs, a black female named Kwethluk, emerged as a strong leader during the race. She’s the daughter of Sivo, one of his first sled dogs who is described on his website as a leader “with a head of steel.” His Sivo Racing Kennel is named after her.
Kwethluk, he said, “is 5 years old now and she’s been an OK leader, but this year she has been doing really good, really well, and I (am) almost seeing part of Sivo in her, so that’s been kinda fun.”
Phillips drove a team of 11 dogs on the return trip though Rainy Pass on Saturday night. She camped out at the mouth of the Happy River, just before the Happy River Steps, and at that point the biggest hiccup she had experienced had nothing to do with the trail.
Before going to sleep, she set her watch for a wakeup call. She forgot about daylight saving time but her watch didn’t, and it woke her up an hour before she wanted to wake up.
She spoke drowsily shortly after that.
“It was very interesting to come back the other way, you know? You’re always moving so quickly down that part and all kinds of stuff is happening,” Phillips said. “It was really interesting to go slow and kind of look around — ‘Oh, so this is what this section looks like.’
‘‘Yeah, it was funny. It was different.”
The biggest surprise, she said, was how hilly it was after Rainy Pass.
“Some sections, you don’t realize how many hills there are coming back,” she said. “There’s some pretty good hills coming back. Definitely.”
Phillips chatted a little longer, and then sleep beckoned. “I’m gonna try to have another half-hour nap,” she said.
Daily News correspondent Zachariah Hughes and photographer Loren Holmes reported from the trail and sports editor Beth Bragg reported from Anchorage.