DESHKA LANDING — Wade Marrs didn’t need a parka as he drove his fourth-place team through the final 25 miles of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Monday. Temperatures were in the 20s and all he needed was a hoodie, because Mille Porsild was bringing the heat behind him.
Marrs matched his best result in 10 races by keeping Porsild at bay on the run from Skwentna, the final stretch of the 832-mile race. When he crossed the Deshka Landing finish line at 12:53 p.m., he leaned on the handlebar of his sled, exhausted.
“Mille and I took off one minute apart so we’ve just been battling the whole way. It’s been fun. At mile 25 I took everything off but (the hoodie) and started running,” Marrs said.
Porsild finished 19 minutes later in fifth place, one year after her 15th-place showing as a rookie last year.
She was 13 minutes ahead of Nic Petit, and had Petit not been so close behind, Porsild thinks she may have been able to make Marrs sweat a little more.
“I think I was in the worse position, because I do want to catch Wade but I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize it (so) Nic catches me. ... Because I just feel that would be a more awful feeling,” Porsild said.
“So there were a couple of things had Nic not been behind me that I would have done to make my team go faster — I would have changed my leader out or added a leader up with her — but I was like, I don’t have a minute. Nic is known in this community as the guy with the fastest team ... and he can make those dogs fly.”
The top 10 was filled with Iditarod veterans. Second-place Aaron Burmeister has finished 20 Iditarods; 10th-place Ramey Smyth has finished 24. In all, the group has combined for 98 finishes.
Only two of those belong to Porsild, a 47-year-old from Denmark.
Her race resume says she’s a newcomer, but her expertise with dogs and her physical toughness — hewn during decades of long-distance polar travel — says different. She got her start in 1992 with a three-month expedition in Canada with polar explorer Will Steger, and since then she’s made more than a dozen more long-haul polar expeditions driving freight dogs.
In this year’s Iditarod, she proved to be a mushing maestro.
“I only have four racing dogs,” Porsild said after driving a team of nine dogs across the finish line.
The dogs are a bit of an all-star team, with animals from the kennels of Dean Osmar, DeeDee Jonrowe, Jeff King and Jessie Holmes. Porsild is the coach who turned them into a cohesive unit.
“Once I get through to them, they’re all loyal,” she said.
“... My job has basically been to make them jibe as team, to make them feel like there’s a leader and they can bloom into all they can be. It’s incredibly satisfying.”
Some of the dogs were in her rookie team last year, she said. Some she started working with last summer.
Jonrowe, one of the Iditarod’s all-time greats, raved about Porsild’s abilities.
“It takes a heck of a trainer to put together adult dogs from that many kennels,” Jonrowe said.
While Marrs, Porsild and Petit were separated by 32 minutes, the race for eighth place was even closer, with 24 minutes separating eighth-place Joar Leifseth Ulsom from ninth-place Richie Diehl and 10th-place Smyth.
Leifseth Ulsom and Diehl, who are good friends, left Skwentna together, but the 2018 champ made the run to Deshka Landing nine minutes faster than Diehl.
“Right when we left Skwentna he took off, and (I thought), wow, I doubt I can keep up with that, but maybe by Yentna I’ll start working and see what I can do,” Diehl said. “I saw him a couple times in last 20 miles and I knew were catching him, but we couldn’t.”
As is his custom, Smyth turned in a smoking final run to bump Michelle Phillips into 11th place. Smyth made the 67-mile run from Skwentna to Deshka Landing in 8 hours, 18 minutes, the fastest time recorded among the top 11 finishers. Winner Dallas Seavey made it in 8:24, and everyone else needed nine or 10 hours.
Ryan Redington, who was among the leaders early in the race, placed a career-best seventh place and finished with the minimum-allowed six dogs.
A few hours ahead of him, Brent Sass was running a team of 13, just one short of the 14 everyone started with eight days earlier. Sass finished third for his best Iditarod finish in six starts, and he said his big team displayed tremendous power on the return trip over the Alaska Range.
“The mountains were easy for us,” he said. “Going up hills was not a problem. I had a big team and they just motored up those mountains without any trouble.”
He said experience in the Yukon Quest — the sport’s other 1,000-mile race, known for long runs between checkpoints and bitter cold — proved valuable when temperatures dipped below minus-50 in the Interior.
“It was fun to have a little cold in the Iditarod,” said Sass, a three-time Quest champion whose previous-best Iditarod finish was fourth last year. “Whenever I’m out there and I get all my chores done and I curl up in my bag or whatever, in two minutes I realize there’s no way I’m going to get warm. I camped outside Ophir and paced up and down the trail for two hours. The dogs had jackets. They didn’t care.”