“Clear, warm, and beautiful”, “Stiff northerly breeze, clear, and cold. Racers delight?”, and “Yet another bluebird day for the racers today!” are all comments from race fans and volunteers along the trail as Day 3 was nothing short of astonishing in regards to how insanely close this race is, with more than 1,000 miles traveled.
The field of racers left Galena early this morning making a 411 mile dash toward Nome after the top 6 teams of front-runners had already accumulated 30 hours of layover time. The standout to this was Team 21 Hale/Hale that while physically arriving first to Nome, is currently sitting in 10th place. To say this race is close, is a bit of an understatement. It was evident that these teams were nipping on each others heels as we saw a few lead-changes today with Team 6 George/Schachle taking the lead spot into Nome this afternoon. As noted from the leaderboard snapshot below, just 14 minutes separate the top 4 teams. This is a razor-thin margin in a race like this. Hanging onto such a small margin would be an astounding feat, and its very likely that we will see this leaderboard continue to shake up along the remaining 1,631 miles to Big Lake.
Rounding off the top 10 into Nome are Team 39 Barber/Conlon, Team 3 Barber/Barber, Team 30 Conner/Elder, and Team 21 Hale/Hale. Early in the morning there was no time for the racers to be resting on their laurels. You can hear Team 6 as they are fueling in Kaltag asking about how far ahead of them Team 3 was and you can clearly see them moving with purpose and speed getting in and out of the checkpoint quickly.
The video below shows what has been a fairly familiar scene during this race as teams are neck-and-neck, showing up to checkpoints at nearly the same time or within minutes of each other.
The GPS view for the teams racing up the edge of the Norton Sound were bunched up as well. I can assume there was lots of looking over ones shoulder looking for a headlight behind, or looking ahead trying to see the snow plume from teams in front.
As a testament to the potential for anything to happen during this race, the notable scratch today was from Team 7 Aklestad/Olstad. ‘The ‘Stads’ had been making a great run up the coast when a suspension bolt had broken on one of their Ski-Doo machines out of Unalakleet allowing the studded track to chew through the tunnel cooler, forcing them from the race. The second team to scratch today, taking the total to three total teams forced from the race was Team 11 Wagner/Wellman. It is reported that Eric Wellman, 52 from Wasilla, suffered a sprained wrist and could no longer complete the race.
Part of what makes this race so challenging and hard on these machines is often the lack of snow on the trail. Pictured below, Brian Leslie of Team 14 is making his way toward the checkpoint of Unalakleet, navigating frozen tussocks, ice ridges, and other obstacles. Team 14 is currently in Nome in fourth position. Low-snow conditions on the trail as far back as Rohn were a challenge for the teams as well.
Team 30 got a taste of how dangerous these frozen tussocks on the tundra can be while barreling down the trail, in the dark, at break-neck speeds. Blake Elder reported that they were “Cruising along before the Poorman checkpoint when I cartwheeled and started bleeding out of my face everywhere”. Elder’s wife, Natalie, explained that it was a double nostril nose bleed that wouldn’t stop making a bloody mess while on the trail. He broke his windshield during the crash before realizing the whole mount for the bottom side of Blake’s front track shock was sticking out of the bottom of his Polaris machine as well, forcing him to ride from Poorman to Galena with no rear shocks. It was unclear how long it took them to repair their machines once they were on the clock again early this morning.
The Expedition Class of racers arrived into Nome and were certainly not strangers to both mechanical problems, broken parts, and also bodily injury. A few of the teams had to basically ‘team up’ to safely get to the finish line, and it was apparent that Joe Brady of Team 88 got intimate with a spruce tree along the trail, badly damaging his Ski-Doo in the process. Thankfully the damage was mostly ‘cosmetic’, and Brady attributes the majority of protection from the upgraded bumper that was installed prior to the race. These machines undergo extensive modifications even before hitting the trail beefing up critical components, adding auxiliary fuel tanks, lighting, and the list goes on.
As the rest of the Pro-Class teams make their way to Nome, a much-needed 24 hour mandatory layover will allow them to take a deep breath, examine their machines for upcoming repairs, and catch-up on some much needed rest.