A drizzle fell Wednesday morning in Takotna, where more than a dozen Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race teams were bedded down for their 24-hour rests. In McGrath, 18 miles farther back on the trail, there was freezing rain and fuzzy cloud cover obscuring the nearby mountains and grounding planes.
Warm weather is proving a persistent variable for mushers to contend with as they strategize on where to rest their dog teams. Sunny skies and temperatures cracking the 40s at the Rainy Pass checkpoint on Monday blasted teams as they crossed the Alaska Range. The warmth has not abated, hovering just above freezing at two of the most popular checkpoints for mushers to take their mandatory 24-hour rest.
“Well, with the heat, I’ve been kinda adapting as I go,” Fairbanks musher Riley Dyche told Iditarod Insider in McGrath on Wednesday, where he declared he’d be taking his 24.
Initially he’d aimed to make it to Takotna for the long break, but timing wise, he would’ve been finishing up his layover just as the day’s heat was starting to build. So he scrapped the plan, choosing to pause early in McGrath rather than risk pushing further.
For Kelly Maixner of Big Lake, it was the 50 miles of moguls between the Rohn checkpoint and town of Nikolai that led him to declare his 24 in McGrath. But the high temperatures added another incentive.
“It’s hard on ‘em. They don’t like running in 30 degrees,” Maixner told Insider, referring to his sled dogs.
Jason Mackey’s dogs are large, and the weather has meant keeping them to a less aggressive tempo.
“I got big boys. Eighty pounders,” he said Tuesday to Insider. The Knik musher has kept them to short runs, rather than pushing them to six- or eight-hour chunks at a time.
But Mackey said he didn’t have a real choice. A thermometer on his sled bathed in midday sun hit 80 degrees. He saw two mosquitoes. The weather is more like spring than winter.
“It zaps ‘em,” Mackey said.
Where mushers chose to take their big 24-hour rests is key to their overall race strategy, setting them up with a recharged team. They are also required to take two mandatory eight-hour breaks: one at a checkpoint of their choice along the Yukon River, as well as at the town of White Mountain closer to Nome. But otherwise, racers are running and resting their dogs according to their needs and abilities.
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Many of the front-runners chose to take their 24-hour layover at Takotna, a checkpoint renowned for its hospitality and well positioned for a recharge before mushers embark on the lengthy slog past Ophir and through the Iditarod Mining District on their way to the Yukon. Several teams arrived overnight Tuesday and into Wednesday morning. Among them, 2019 champion Pete Kaiser’s dogs — all 14 of them still on the line — were repeatedly remarked on for how good they look at this stage in the race.
“That is the strongest team I’ve seen yet on this trail,” Insider commentator and race veteran Bruce Lee said from Takotna not long after Kaiser checked in.
Kaiser, who calls Bethel home, was among a group of front-runners who all arrived for their 24s in Takotna within a two-hour window: Ryan Redington, Richie Diehl and Matthew Failor.
Three mushers pushed farther to the Ophir checkpoint for their 24s: defending champion Brent Sass of Eureka, Jessie Holmes of Brushkana and Aaron Peck from Grande Prairie, Alberta. Sass had been replicating his schedule from the 2022 race but diverged by stopping at Ophir; in the last three years, he has continued farther to either Iditarod, on the southern route, or Cripple in northern route years, both of which are closer to the race’s halfway point. He arrived at Ophir not long after midnight, and by the time his 24 hours are done he’ll have plenty of cooler overnight conditions to mush through on the 80-mile trip up to Iditarod.
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Running neck-and-neck with Sass is Holmes, who has been keeping an almost identical run-rest schedule since the start of the race. Holmes pulled into Ophir a little more than a half-hour before Sass. For him, Ophir is the norm: He’s 24ed there four of his previous five Iditarods, typically looking calm and at ease in the rustic accommodations, consisting of little more than a small cabin and a barebones tent for mushers to sleep.
Beyond them is Wade Marrs, the only musher to gamble on pushing all the way to the Iditarod checkpoint. As of midday Wednesday, Marrs was paused 9 miles down the trail from Ophir, resting before continuing on.
The other novel strategy at play by a top contender is Nicolas Petit’s decision to take his 24 relatively early at the Nikolai checkpoint, just a quarter of the way into the race route. By 7:47 a.m. Wednesday, Petit was back on the trail and cruising midday through McGrath, where he stopped for just nine minutes before heading out.
Whether he’ll be able to gain enough distance over the rest of the front pack while giving his dogs enough rest to keep their legs juiced for several hundred more miles remains to be seen.