Out on the Iditarod trail, the leading teams heading to Kaltag battled a tough trail today. Because the bad weather has grounded air support for the past couple of days, trail-breakers on snow machines have been pressed into service hauling food and volunteers to the checkpoints. One such volunteer reported there were at least 20 places with overflow completely across the trail, and that even on the packed dog trail one would sink to his or her knees if attempting to walk. According to his report, it is impossible for mushers to pull off the trail to stop for a rest except on a couple of windblown stretches.
In spite of the poor trail conditions, Aliy Zirkle appeared to spend most of the day chipping away at Martin Busers huge lead. Martin left the Eagle Island checkpoint at 2:41 this morning, and after resting her team about five hours, Aliy left at 5:51. This means she had closed the gap by nearly 2 hours in just a single run. In part, that’s probably because Aliy’s dogs were well rested during their 8 hour layover, but it also appears that Martin’s team has slowed quite a bit. Breaking out a trail in sloppy conditions can take a heavy toll on a team of dogs.
I checked the GPS Live Tracking at 11:35 this morning, and saw that Martin was traveling at only 5.2 mile per hour at mile 609. Meanwhile, Aliy was closing at 9.0 mph (a good, solid trotting pace) only 11 miles behind him. By 1:00 this afternoon she had gained even more ground, and was only six miles behind. At about 3:00, it looked like Aliy had found a relatively dry, comfortable place to camp and rest her team, about an hour’s run outside of Kaltag. That allowed several of the other front-running teams to pass her by, including Mitch Seavey, Aaron Burmeister, Jake Berkowitz, and Joar Ulsom. I don't know how long Aliy rested her dogs, but at 5:52 this evening she checked into Kaltag, and at 6:20 she checked out again, heading across the Kaltag Portage toward Unalakleet. As I write, she is the only musher to have left the checkpoint thus far.
I think things could get very interesting overnight. All of these leading teams have had to travel a very long way on very little rest so I suspect most of these mushers will give their teams a good break at Kaltag before starting across the Kaltag Portage to Unalakleet. Last year Aliy had a lot of trouble on the portage. She was working so hard, ski-poling, peddling and running beside her sled, that she nearly exhausted herself. The portage slowed her progress enough that extremely athletic Dallas Seavey was able to catch up eventually win the race.
Perhaps she's battling the phantom of her memory as she once again starts breaking trail over this portion of the trail. The Kaltag portage is about an 82 mile stretch. Normally most Iditarod teams could easily do that in a single run after resting in the checkpoint. Given the heat and difficulties on the Yukon River today, and the fact that her team truly is running on very little rest, I am rather surprised that Aliy is starting that journey so quickly. Fortunately there are some good cabins along this stretch where mushers can give their teams a nice camp if they wish to do so. Although the weather forecast is for cooling temperatures and perhaps a few snow showers, it also calling for some stiff winds, especially on the Norton Sound side of the pass.
Martin Buser, or any four of the 5 teams that passed Aliy while she was camped, could give chase at any moment, so it's impossible to determine which of them might be running in which positions until they actually leave the checkpoint. Jessie Royer is currently in Kaltag, but still owes the race an 8 hour mandatory layover, so she won't be leaving anytime particularly soon.
So, we have a five-way tie for second place tonight between Martin Buser, Mitch Seavey, Aaron Burmeister, Jake Berkowitz and Joar Ulsom. I'm usually willing to risk a bit of money on the outcome of a sled dog race, but right now I wouldn't bet against any of those guys.
Closer to home, it looks like Matt Hall is well on his way to winning the Two Rivers 200. According to the GPS tracker he is running the big loop along the Chena River and should be arriving at the finish line within the next 45 minutes or so. The leaderboard hasn't been updated for quite a while, because there is no Internet access from Angel Creek. Nonetheless, it's obvious that none of his competitors are even close behind him.