Even though a winner already has reached the burled arch in Nome, the next round of overnight finishes in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race had the potential to be even more exciting and unpredictable.
Intense windstorms along the Norton Sound coast, around Shaktoolik, scrambled the leaderboard early Monday and bunched up the race’s chase pack. Now, they’re close enough together that sprint races to the finish line seemed likely Tuesday night.
A long string of top-tier teams ran into conditions daunting enough near Shaktoolik overnight Sunday and early Monday morning that they halted, trying to wait out the 50 mph headwinds scouring the icy trail north up the Norton Sound coast.
“It was blowing pretty good when we got over there,” 2019 champion Pete Kaiser of Bethel told Iditarod Insider in Koyuk on Monday afternoon.
“Interesting bubble of mushers here, battling for somewhere between third and … I’m not sure where,” Kaiser said.
As early mushers spent 11 hours waiting out the gales, teams running a few places back all started to catch up on the trip north from Unalakleet.
Far up the trail, as Eureka’s Brent Sass sped toward victory in Nome with Talkeetna’s Dallas Seavey hot on his heels, the rest of the competitive field got balled up in a knot that shook up race standings and promised a night of place-chasing races to the finish.
Or, as Nome/Nenana’s Aaron Burmeister put it to Insider: “Now we’re racing with 15 teams for 3rd place.”
Finishing position is about more than bragging rights. Each place a racer can jump up in the standings brings with it thousands of dollars more in race purse money — which, as any musher will tell you, will buy many bags of dog food.
Of the six teams that arrived in White Mountain for their mandatory eight-hour rests early Tuesday morning, after Sass and Seavey had long since departed, there were three close races among pairs of mushers.
Brushkana’s Jessie Holmes left White Mountain at 11:35 a.m., 16 minutes ahead of Chatanika’s Dan Kaduce. They’ll be racing for third place. Holmes is down to nine dogs and was one of the mushers sequestered at Shaktoolik for over 10 hours trying to wait out the wind storm. Kaduce, who has completed three Iditarods and finished as high as 16th, still has all 14 of his dogs and has posted some of the race’s fastest run times along the coast.
Jockeying for fifth and sixth places are Aniak’s Richie Diehl and Kaiser. They’re longtime friends who are both from the Yukon-Kuskokwim region and have both won the Kuskokwim 300, Bush Alaska’s premier mid-distance race. Diehl departed White Mountain at 12:50 p.m. with an 11-minute lead, and as of Tuesday afternoon he and Kaiser were racing neck-and-neck according to Iditarod’s GPS tracker.
In the race for seventh place are seasoned musher Aaron Burmeister of Nome/Nenana and relative newcomer Chad Stoddard of Anchorage. Burmeister left at 1:57 p.m. with a 21-minute advantage. He’s not only completed 20 prior Iditarods, he also grew up in the Bering Strait region and knows the coastal route to Nome better than almost any other musher in the field.
Stoddard finished last year’s altered Iditarod route on the Gold Loop Trail in 23rd place as a rookie, so he hasn’t been down the coast to Nome during the race before. While Burmeister’s lead is solid, Stoddard is running some top dogs from Seavey’s kennel and has had an impressive showing all race long, mushing hundreds of miles on a busted sled. (Now he’s on a sled borrowed from Seward musher Travis Beals.)
Just 4 miles behind Stoddard, as of Tuesday afternoon, was Knik’s Ryan Redington.
Mushers racing for top positions could start arriving on Front Street as early as 8 p.m. Tuesday. Racers are likely to continue arriving late into the night and throughout Wednesday morning.