The stage is now set for one of the best coast runs in the recent history of the Iditarod. That possibility is based on the number of teams still in the running at Unalakleet. As of this writing, eight teams have arrived within five hours of the leader Aliy Zirkle. Four of those eight teams are moving faster that Zirkle, and the last three of those eight teams are probably the fastest teams in the race. (I haven’t checked speeds way back in the pack where there is sometimes a very fast team taking big breaks at checkpoints) With that set up, there can still be a lot of jockeying for position.
Dallas Seavey has the edge based on team speed and current position. Zirkle had almost an hour lead into Unalakleet, but is moving slower than Dallas. Burmeister has the biggest string of dogs (15) and they are the best eaters among the leaders, and of course calories consumed are like gallons of gas poured in your car. They determine how fast and far you can go. Defending champion John Baker has a history of strong runs along the coast. The temps on the coast right now are brutal. I think that helps Baker, who trains in Kotzebue where warm winter days are rare. Certainly he can’t be counted out, but it is hard for a slower team to catch a faster team that is out ahead. That is Baker’s task now that he arrived in fourth place.
Another former champ Mitch Seavey appears to be fading. His long run from Takotna to Ruby might have left his dogs a bit low on energy. The next three, Redington, Berowitz and Kaiser rolled into Unalakleet with good times and reportedly lots of energy. I sense they might be a bit too far behind (4-5 hours) to contend for the top spot, but look for them to move up.
It is likely there will be two long runs for most of these teams to White Mountain. Because of the 8 hour mandatory layover in White Mountain, that check point has become more or less the de facto finish line. I haven’t done the research, but it is rare for the first team into White Mountain to lose its lead by Nome.
What is it like to be on the sled as the finish line approaches? I have done enough racing to pass along what it was like to be among the leaders in a tight contest. The lack of sleep becomes less of a factor because of the excitement level which builds as the race reaches its final stages. Intense concentration on the events in front of the sled consumes the racer. The dogs are scanned constantly for any sign of problems. The racer knows the gait of each dog, and is by now very used to the speed of travel and energy displayed by each dog. Any change in those factors is a cause for concern. Occasionally a dog will stop pulling for a short time for reasons I never understood. The line would go slack, and I would hold my breath worried that I would have to carry that dog, which was the cause of more than one lost race for me. I would watch the dog intently, sometimes to see the dog gradually fade to the point where I had to put it in the sled. Other times the problem would pass and the dog would fall back into rhythm. Time then to return the focus to the rest of the team.
How far should I go before a short snack? Keep an eye on the trail markers. Losing the trail for even a short time is a disaster in the late stage of a race. Where is the team ahead of us? Where is the team behind us? Is my headlite bright enough? Man am I thirsty, but my juice is frozen. I could sure use a pee break right now, but too much hassle. All these thoughts and more used to race through my mind as we moved along the trail. Long hours on the back of a sled can be boring at times, but not in late stages of a tight dog race.
Myron Angstman, lawyer, pilot, and dog musher, lives in Bethel, Alaska. Read more about dogs, law suits and rural Alaska gossip by checkinghttp://www.myronangstman.com/