It was 11 degrees when Nicolas Petit and his team of 12 dogs roared into the checkpoint at Nikolai a little before 7 a.m. Tuesday, the sky beginning to stain with a slow orange sunrise over the south fork of the upper Kuskokwim River.
Then, he did something unusual this early in the race: he declared he’d be taking his mandatory 24-hour rest, just 263 miles into the nearly 1,000-mile race route.
Wiley mushers will sometimes “declare” they are taking their 24 at a checkpoint to start the clock, then change their minds and head up the trail to take their daylong rest elsewhere — a hedging-of-bets kind of maneuver. But Petit appeared committed, asking for a long-term parking spot in the dog lot. And by Tuesday afternoon, more than nine hours after he first arrived, he had not budged.
“That’s kinda big news,” Iditarod Insider’s Greg Heister said from Nikolai on Tuesday morning. “It appears that Nic may be seriously considering staying here for his 24-hour rest. We haven’t seen that out of a winning team since 1992.”
Through the 1980s and into the first years of the 1990s, mushers typically took their big rests earlier in the race, often at Rohn. In 1992, Martin Buser pushed the envelope by driving all the way to Nikolai to take his 24-hour rest and won that year’s race.
In the decades since, it’s become normal for the front and middle of the pack to begin declaring their long rests farther down the trail in checkpoints such as McGrath or Takotna, and for gamblers to try maintaining their team’s speed all the way to Ophir or Iditarod. Last year, champion Brent Sass made it all the way to the Cripple checkpoint, about halfway through the northern route, before taking his 24 — which paid off.
For Petit, a highly competitive musher who arrived in Nikolai with good-looking dogs, taking such a big rest so early is an unconventional strategy. In 2018, when Petit finished the race in second place, he 24ed in McGrath. That year, he arrived in Nikolai at 8:25 a.m., about an hour and a half behind his current tempo.
Likewise, Brent Sass is running ahead of the schedule that put him in first place last year. He was the fifth musher into Nikolai at 8:29 a.m. Tuesday, compared to 9:12 a.m. the year prior. Both he and Jessie Holmes bolted out of the checkpoint to camp farther down the trail, away from noise, spectators and other teams. Sass rested for around four hours almost 20 miles past Nikolai. While he was stopped, Holmes, who so far has emulated Sass’ run-rest schedule outside established checkpoints, leap-frogged past him and stopped another 9 miles farther out for a four-hour break of his own during the heat of the day.
By late Tuesday afternoon, there were five mushers in a knot at the front of the pack: Holmes and Sass after finishing their breaks on the trail, and Ryan Redington, Richie Diehl and Kelly Maixner, all of whom had been mushing for several hours straight after leaving Nikolai midday. All five were within a few miles of one another on the trail into McGrath, with another group of racers chasing them not far behind.
Mushers in Nikolai reported relatively tame trail conditions descending out of the Alaska Range and through the Buffalo Tunnels on their way in.
“It was a mogul-y trail for sure. I felt like I was on a boat out on the high seas,” rookie Eddie Burke Jr. told Iditarod Insider. “It was more annoying than anything.”
Veteran musher Kelly Maixner, who is running dogs from five-time champion Dallas Seavey’s kennel, said the south-facing uphill sections of the trail had softened and melted during a 4- or 5-mile stretch he’d crossed.
“I’ve never mushed through mud. It doesn’t work very well. Frozen dirt: You go fast. Mud: You go really slow,” Maixner said.
The conditions were enough to make him re-evaluate his strategy for where to take his 24-hour rest.
“I was thinking about going to Iditarod but I think they’re a little banged up,” he said, referring to his dogs, who had to contend with the jarring ups and downs of so many miles of moguls. “So we might stop a little early just ‘cause I wanna recover them.”
The race saw its first scratch Monday night. Rookie Jennifer LaBar of Healy pulled out of the race at the Rainy Pass checkpoint because of a severe hand injury, according to the Iditarod Trail Committee. Alaska Public Media reported LaBar broke her left ring finger when it got smashed between the handlebars of her sled and a snowbank while she was going down the Happy River Steps.