This year's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is one of the closest races I can remember in a good, long while. Let's take it from the top, or at least from the top of last night.
After stopping for about four hours, Mitch Seavey left Shaktoolik for Koyuk at 01:15.
Aaron Burmeister followed at 02:09 after roughly 3 ½ hours of rest.
Jeff King also rested his team about three hours before leaving at 01:12. By 06:00 Jeff had passed Aaron Burmeister to claim the second position well before the half-way point of the run. King’s dogs were running a bit more than 1 ½ MPH faster than Aaron’s.
Aliy Zirkle out at 03:16. At 06:15 she was running more than 2 MPH faster than Aaron, and gaining on him quickly.
Ray Redington Jr out at 03:17. At 6:10, Aliy and Ray Redington were both running at about 7.5 mph, still close together.
Joar Ulsom at 03:18. At 06:10 Ulsom’s team had slowed to about 6.3 mph
Jake Berkowitz left at at 05:28 and at 06:10 was about 11 miles behind the rookie, gaining ground slowly but apparently steadily.
Dallas Seavey, moving up very strongly, left Shaktoolik at 06:11 and arrived in Koyuk at 12:12. He had the fastest run time of any of these leading teams and last year he came on strong to win from well behind. That’s his style, it’s what he does, and it makes him a threat once again this year.
Mitch Seavey was the first musher into Koyuk, arriving at 07:41. Jeff King didn’t give him much time to bask in glory, though. Jeff hit the checkpoint at 0816, asked for his drop bags, repacked his sled and was back on the trail 6 minutes later, to claim the lead. King then stopped only about 8 miles out of Koyuk to set up a camp and rest his team. I don’t know if that was done to maintain his intended run/rest schedule, or perhaps an attempt to bait one of his competitors into cutting his own team’s rest short and giving chase.
Aaron Burmeister’s team seemed to falter out on the ice between Shaktoolik and Koyuk, which give Ray Redington Jr. a chance to pass both he and Aliy Zirkle less than 10 miles from the checkpoint. Aliy then slipped past both Burmeister and Redington as the teams regained the beach, to reach the checkpoint in third place. Those three teams left nearly on top of each other, with Aliy pulling her hook at 1:23, Ray at 1:28 and Aaron at 1:37. Aaron posted the slowest run of the front-runners across the ice. At about 2:30 it looked like Aliy and Ray were running together while Aaron was roughly two miles behind.
By 5:00, Mitch Seavey has passed Jeff King to take over the lead and was only 9 miles from the checkpoint at Elim. Jeff King was stopped on the trail, six miles behind Seavey. Ray Redington Jr. was closing fast, only 5 miles behind King and moving at over 7 mph. Aliy Zirkle was maintaining very good position, less than a mile behind Redington and Aaron Burmeister was only three miles behind Aliy. Jake Berkowitz and Joar Ulsom were running together about 10 miles behind Aaron. At that time those were the only mushers that had checked out of Koyuk.
I doubt that any of these teams will stop long at Elim. The next leg of the race, from Elim to White Mountain is pretty short (only 45 miles) and each team must spend a mandatory 8-hour layover at White Mountain, giving their dogs time to recover. In this section, the trails turns inland to climb over the Kwiktalik Mountains, with a serious of long, moderately hard grades, including the 1,000 foot summit of Little McKinley. That is considered to be the hardest climb in the last half of the race.
As I write (6:35 pm), Mitch Seavey seems to be holding on to his lead and is pulling in to Elim. Aliy Zirkle is shown on the GPS tracker in second place, apparently having passed Ray Redington and Jeff King in just the past hour or so. She is shown as being about 11 miles out, which translate into roughly an hour and 1/2 of run time. Jeff is right on the tails of her runners, though. He won't give up position easily at this point in the race. Redington is only a couple of miles behind Aliy and Jeff and I'm sure he's giving it everything he and his dogs have to give.
Aaron Burmeister hasn't capitulated by any means. He is shown a mile behind Redington, but barely trudging along at only 4 1/2 mph. Though probably too far back to challenge for the win, Jake Berkowitz is nonetheless still in the race, nine miles behind Burmeister. He is followed within a couple of miles by Joar Ulsom, and Dallas Seavey seems determined to improve his position as he's only 3 miles behind Jake.
It looks like this race is going to be a nail-biter all the way to the burled arch in Nome.
END GAME AT WORK:
Today was my last full day of work for this tour of duty. I just put my laundry in the dryer and I'm organizing the stuff I need to pack for the trip home in the morning. I’ll be getting off about 10:00 am, and by the time I drive to town and do my grocery shopping and I'll be lucky to pull into my own driveway by 1:00.
This R&R will probably be my last opportunity to run the dogs on a sled this season. We've been enjoying unseasonably warm temperatures, some days warm enough to start thawing. I've been told the snow has already sloughed off the roof of the house. It isn't anything like break-up yet, but it is a promise that break-up is coming quickly. I'll try to keep y'all informed about my activities during the next two weeks of alleged "rest and recreation". More often than not, I work harder during R&R than I do while at work.