Iditarod mushers are largely done with their mandatory 24-hour rests, and as race positions firm up, Eureka’s Brent Sass maintains a modest lead. It’s hardly an unprecedented situation for Sass, whose Iditarod career is marked by early pushes that put him ahead midway through the race — only to see those gains erode along the Yukon River and up the Bering Sea coast.
Behind him is Talkeetna’s Dallas Seavey, a disciplined, focused five-time champion who has bested Sass multiple times in recent Iditarods. That includes last year, when Seavey won the race and Sass came in third, and in 2016, when Sass — who finished in 20th — said he’d mistakenly pushed his dogs too hard along the trail trying to catch Dallas.
Asked repeatedly during this year’s race whether he’s recalibrating his strategy based on what competitors (i.e. Dallas) are doing, Sass has emphasized that he’s focused on his strategy and pace alone.
“Mainly (I) just focus on my team for a few hundred miles before I start thinking about the competition,” Sass told Iditarod Insider while taking his 24-hour rest in Cripple.
Further emphasizing this point, Alaska Public Media published a photo of the mantra tattooed up Sass’s forearm, which reads, “Run your own race.”
In four of his seven Iditarods, Sass has been the first musher to reach the race’s midpoint. His third-place finish in 2021 was his best result yet.
He pulled into the Kaltag checkpoint at 2:36 a.m. Saturday with 12 dogs in harness and will be taking his mandatory 8-hour rest on the Yukon there.
Sass’ strategy this year, as in others, is built around driving his dogs for longer runs at a time than most competitors are willing to push, then resting them for slightly longer. Since crossing Rainy Pass, his team has consistently run for eight-hour chunks, followed by four-hour periods of rest.
Seavey, who is taking his 8-hour rest in Nulato after arriving there at 12:32 a.m. Saturday with 12 dogs in harness, is running closer to six-hour chunks punctuated by about four hours of rest. Others in the front pack are also pursuing a similar strategy.
The major deviation for Sass and several others around the front pack was the slog from Ophir to Cripple, which Sass did in nearly 12 hours with no significant breaks — although that was heading into his 24-hour rest.
Sass and Seavey are also both firmly sticking to run-rest schedules optimized for his team but indifferent to human creature comforts at checkpoints. The two men have made themselves scarce in checkpoints, opting instead to rest their teams along quieter stretches of trail that fit more precisely into the mathematical mileage maps stored in their sleep-deprived minds.
For the dogs, this means fewer distractions like other teams parked nearby, loud planes flying overhead, and humans gawking at them in dog lots. For mushers, it means they have to be totally self-sufficient feeding their teams and themselves, napping out in the open or in their sled bags, if at all.
While in Cripple, Sass told Insider that up to that point, his dogs had not been eating as well as he generally likes to see, but they’d “kinda turned a corner, finally,” during the long rest.
“I feel pretty good about ‘em,” Sass said.
After that, he blew through the checkpoint at Ruby. As the first to get to the Yukon, he won money and a fancy meal prepared by a chef flown in from Anchorage. He did not stick around for a several-course feast that included seared shrimp, steak and Champagne.
“I guess you’ll have to give it to someone else,” Sass said, according to an Alaska Public Media article. “I’d love to stay longer, but my schedule doesn’t allow it. It’s cold, got to take advantage of it!”
The gourmet meal was enjoyed by a local friend of his from Ruby, Billy Honea, and a guest. Honea, a checkpoint volunteer, has been involved with the Iditarod for many years and his father, Don Honea raced in the 1970s and 1980s, a race representative said.
At Ruby, Sass hurriedly mentioned that the trail was the best he’d encountered in the race so far getting up to the Yukon. It was in the single digits when he and his dogs, a veneer of silver frost clinging to their fur and whiskers, blew through town early Friday morning.
From there he pushed another 50 miles downriver to Galena, but once again stopped only long enough to jam straw and bottles of fuel for his cook stove into his sled bag in order to rest farther down trail as the clear day warmed up.
“Gotta be as efficient as possible,” Sass said. “It’s too nice not to go fast in the sun here.”
“We’re still in the game, we’re in striking range, we’re not out of it,” Seavey told Iditarod Insider during his rest at Cripple. “That’s kinda surprising. I say ‘surprising’ because in my mind, I figured we’re so far out of it at this point.”
Seavey explained that his dogs have been running slower than he planned: Deep snow along portions of the route is one hindrance, and a bug running through them has been another.
“If these guys start eating, then we’ve got a heck of a dog team,” Seavey told Insider.
He appears to have gotten his wish. A short Insider video of Seavey pulling into Ruby shows a team of energetic, alert dogs ready to keep pulling.
“I told ya if they started eating, we’d have a frickin’ monster,” Seavey said in the video. “And here we are. Oh, they’re eating.”
Seavey was slower getting out of Ruby than the front-runner, though — seven minutes to Sass’ five.
Veteran Neff, rookie Ahnen scratch
At 11:40 a.m. Friday, veteran musher Hugh Neff of Anchorage scratched at the Ruby checkpoint with 11 dogs in harness. The decision was made in conjunction with race marshal Mark Nordman based on Neff and Nordman’s concern for the dog team, a statement from race officials said.
Neff had arrived in Ruby around 8:15 a.m. Friday. Before his scratch, he had told Alaska Public Media that his dogs had gotten sick the day prior, “were not eating well, had the diarrhea but now they came around, thank God.”
This year’s race was the 15th Iditarod that Neff had started. His best finish was a fifth-place result in 2011.
Toward the back of the pack, Cantwell rookie Julie Ahnen scratched at the McGrath checkpoint at 9:30 a.m. Friday with 10 dogs in harness. Ahnen decided to scratch in the best interest of her team, according to Iditarod officials.
Four mushers have now scratched so far out of a field of 49 racers.
Daily News reporter Morgan Krakow contributed.