Well, today and last night belonged to Aliy Zirkle. She did not use any of my scenarios but she managed to recapture the lead. The lead she had in Kaltag was about 3 ½ hours- which is getting close to being a checkpoint to checkpoint game. The game involved means the leader comes into the checkpoint four hours ahead of the next musher and rests at the checkpoint until the second musher comes in, than leaves for the next checkpoint. We are close to that playing out and one of the remaining contenders needs to step up to the plate to counter Aliy’s lead.
The 90 mile run to Unalakleet lately has been done in one run by the leader which follows another long rest in Unalakleet in order to continue up the coast. Let’s talk about Mitch Seavey and possibly what happened to his lead at Ruby. Mitch chose to do the run from Cripple to Ruby without a rest, and it affected the speed of his team. Losing that speed cost him some options and Aliy in her brilliance, chose to eight hour in Galena.
Two new mushers have joined the fray and they are Aaron Burmeister and Jeff King. Aaron has developed a system that works for him, and in order to perfect the system- it needs to finish in the front. We will see if he unleashes his dogs from the 8 mile limit he has imposed to gain some speed and improve in position. Jeff King is a surprise because he had retired and his dogs were not Iditarod proven but with his mushing skill, he has managed to be up front with the leaders. He can be a musher of concern if he unleashes the stored energy of his dogs at any remaining time of the race. He is to be congratulated for his good showing regardless.
Martin Buser and other mushers are amazed at the pace of the race. Martin says that there are “lots and lots of mushers in the top 30 and are packed in a tight 10-12 hour window“. The top contenders have brought about some separation and those six look to be amongst the contending field for the top position. Aliy Zirkle can win the race if she can do the Portage run to maintain her 3 ½ hour separation. However, I expect someone to move up with her to give her a run for her money on this particular portage run.
From Kaltag forward to Nome, there has been a group of mushers who raced that portion of the trail earlier in the Paul Johnson 450. I will be curious to see if that familiarity on the part of the dogs benefit Aaron Burmeister, Dee Dee Jonrowe and Peter Kaiser who raced in the 450. The perk maybe in how the dogs respond to the trail and pick up on running speed knowing how close they are to concluding the race.
The race on the Coast will excite the masses. This race is far from done and we can expect some surprises still- that’s why they play the game.
Sam Towarak, retired school teacher, dog musher, and sports commentator, lives in Unalakleet, Alaska.