By: Michael Rogers
The 2019 Iditarod is quickly coming to an end and it is coming down to what amounts to a drag race, well, at least as far as drag races go in the world of long distance sled dog racing. The leaders left Koyuk last night just an hour apart and arrived in White Mountain this morning. Pete Kaiser arrived at 8:05a and Joar Ulsom arrived just 41 minutes later and began his 8-hour mandatory rest, the last mandated rest of the trip. Jessie Royer pulled in 4 hours later, at 12:40p.
Kaiser pulled the hook and mushed out of White Mountain at 4:05p, followed by Joar Ulsom at 4:46p. Royer can leave White Mountain at 8:40p tonight. Since leaving, the nearly evenly paced Kaiser and Ulsom have maintained nearly the same speed and a 6 mile advantage to Kaiser. The pair is working their way down out of the mountains for the run to Safety along the exposed coastline and the infamous “Blow Hole”. The area is known for extremely high wind gusts that create blinding whiteouts and have blown sleds over and teams off course. It has been the scene of many famous scratches, literally in the last 50 miles of the race.
Coming in to White Mountain in 4th position is Aliy Zirkle, who should arrive just about the time Jessie Royer can leave after her 8-hour rest, placing a significant distance between 3rd and 4th positions. Aliy is a crowd favorite, but unless catastrophe happens to all three front runners, the math of speed, time and distance is working against her. Matt Hall, Travis Beals and Paige Drobny- all of whom have had outstanding runs are following her some three hours distant. In their current order, each will have their best Iditarod finish yet in 5th, 6th, and 7th place. This is only Hall’s 2nd race and he should better his last finish at 11th place and it will be Drobny’s first finish in the front pack.
Jesse Holmes, who had been running neck and neck with Zirkle over the last two days, has had his team quit on him in similar fashion to Petit’s. While he is technically still in the race, he’s fallen well back in position to 16th as he waits for his team to get their legs under them in Koyuk. In similar fashion, Mitch Seavey is resting in Elim, a full 46 miles and an 8-hour mandatory rest from Royer.
At this point, the front pack is all from Elim on and the middle pack is concentrated on the legs to and from Koyuk. Included in that middle pack are several Iditarod legends like Martin Buser and Jeff King. I’m not sure either is happier than Lance Mackey as he makes his way across the sea ice of Norton Sound. In pre-race interviews, Mackey declared that just making it to the start line in Willow had exceeded his expectations and a finish would be a dream come true. He seems well on track to finish in the middle of the middle with his beloved team.
Several more scratches today as the trail takes its toll- Ryan Redington, Lev Shvarts, Brett Bruggeman, and Niklas Wikstrand bring the total mushers who have dropped from the race to 10. A contingent of racers from Unalakleet to Kaltag are still moving their way forward, anxious to show enough progress that race officials don’t close the course before they can complete their journey.
At this point, the front-runner is just 50 miles from the Burled Arch and the winner will most likely enter the chute in the early morning hours of tomorrow. While the last official checkpoint is Safety, most mushers spend nearly no time there other than to get their race bib on and give the dogs a quick snack before the big finish.
That is, unless the factors of fatigue, bad luck and Mother Nature have their way.