Sunday was a day for strategy, scratches and stinging cold in the Copper Basin 300 sled dog race.
Brent Sass of Eureka was the first musher to reach Gakona, where minus 50 temperatures greeted mushers at the Meier’s Lake Roadhouse.
He got there at 1:34 p.m. with a full team of 12 dogs, and he had the place to himself for a little more than an hour. At 2:49 p.m., two-time defending champion Nic Petit of Girdwood arrived with his team of 10, and two minutes later Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers was there with 11 dogs.
Meier’s Lake is 170 miles into the 288-mile race, considered by many the toughest mid-distance race in Alaska, in part because of it often serves up bitter cold — in 1996, the race was called off on Sunday when temperatures plummeted to minus 60 and below.
Only 20 mushers remain in the field of 27 that left Glennallen on Saturday morning. Among the seven scratches was three-time Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey.
It was minus 46 then, race manager Jason Severs said, and the brutal cold didn’t abate.
It was 34 below at Point Lodge when Petit reached the race’s first checkpoint, 75 miles into the race, on Saturday evening. Before the night was over, Point Lodge posted a warning to mushers on its Facebook page: “The temperature in Sourdough has dropped to minus 60. Please use extreme caution!!”
Petit remained the trail leader into Sourdough, a 55-mile run from Point Lodge. He got there at 4:04 a.m. Sunday, about an hour ahead of Sass and about three hours ahead of Zirkle.
That’s when things got strategic.
Petit stayed at Sourdough for his mandatory six-hour layover — which mushers can take at a checkpoint of their choice — plus his time differential from Saturday’s interval start.
While he was on pause, Sass and Zirkle left for Meier’s Lake. Both still needed to take their mandatory six-hour rest plus start differential at one of the two remaining checkpoints -- Meier’s Lake or Chistochina.
With a well-rested team, Petit made the run from Sourdough to Meier’s Lake run in three hours; Sass and Zirkle both made the 40-mile run in about 4.5 hours.
Mushers must take a total of 18 hours of rest during the race. Six hours must be taken in a single stretch, and the other 12 can come in increments of the mushers’ choosing. When they reached Meier’s Lake, Petit’s remaining layover time was eight hours, Zirkle’s was nine and Sass’ was 10, not counting the start differentials.
From Meier’s Lake, teams will travel 68 miles to Chistochina. After that come the final 50 miles to the Glennallen finish line. The race will end sometime Monday.