By: Michael Rogers
On Day 5 of the Iditarod, most of the field is finishing their twenty-four hour rest, as a result there just aren’t many changes to talk about. The teams got some rest and some food. The mushers got some rest and some food. Aliy Zirkle pulled into Iditarod at 1:38 this morning, winning the GCI Dorothy Page Halfway Award. She counted on the trail conditions to deteriorate behind her and slow down her competition, the effectiveness of which remains to the be seen. The front pack left their 24-hour checkpoints and proceeded down the trail at a considerably faster pace than Aliy ran it last night in the dark. Many of the teams took rests in the midday warmth at Don’s Cabin or simply camped along the trail. Most of the front pack is now in Iditarod.
Joar Ulsom and Nic Petit didn’t stay long in Iditarod. Petit was the second musher in, and in his usual style- picked up some supplies and mushed on. He camped for a while this afternoon about 10 miles out of the checkpoint on the trail to Shageluk. Joar Ulsom was the third in, fed his dogs, and kept going; eventually passing Petit and is the current race leader. Zirkle can’t leave Iditarod until roughly 1:00am and I doubt many of the front pack are going to tarry that long. Expect to see 8-10 of the front pack blast out of Iditarod ahead of Aliy.
The only mushers in the front half of the field still counting down on their twenty four hour rest are Aliy Zirkle and 4 time Iditarod champ Martin Buser. Buser also holds the record for the most consecutive finishes at 33, has completed 35 and 2019 makes his 36th Iditarod. Buser, born in Switzerland, is so connected with the Iditarod that he completed his process of becoming a naturalized United States citizen in 2002- right under the Burled Arch in Nome.
The 6th day of racing will see the vast emptiness of the Iditarod Mining District replaced by the Yukon River country. The trail from Iditarod to Shageluk is relatively the same as that from Ophir to Iditarod: a tussock covered, soft trail that is rough going and there isn’t a single man made structure anywhere along the 65 miles. The closer you get to Shageluk, the more the trail becomes established from occasional snowmachine traffic. By comparison, the trails of the Yukon drainage, Shageluk to Anvik and Anvik through the Grayling and Eagle Island checkpoints to Kaltag are a veritable superhighway. The 166 miles of trails up the river are smooth, flat, and well packed from extensive snowmachine traffic.
The only real obstacles here are the wind. The prevailing wind is from the north and the mushers will make nearly the entire run into a headwind and the temperatures here can plummet suddenly as fronts roll in from the Arctic. The Yukon run times have some of the greatest variability of any run on the course, based entirely on the speed and temperature of the headwind the team is dealing with. During very cold years, the wind chill here can reportedly push 100 degrees below zero. On a mild year, the smooth ice and open terrain can be travelled extremely fast and is probably somewhat boring for both man and beast.
The twenty fours also gives us something of an opportunity to look at some of the rear pack. Anja Randano has completed her mandatory rest and is now contemplating her continued race after injuring herself falling through a hole in the ice in the Gorge. The rules say she can mush on up the trail, but only if her body and spirit are still willing. Consecutive 4-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey is still on the trail near Ophir and on-camera interviews indicated that Lance is having a great run in the race that has dominated so much of his life. In declining physical health, Mackey considers just being able to run this year’s race a win. As he rolled into Ophir, the checkpoint official asked if he was staying or just passing through and the champ responded with a wide grin, “This whole race is about having fun and I wouldn’t turn down some pie!” Folks everywhere are cheering on Lance Mackey to cross the Burled Arch in Nome.
The rule change this year that reduced the teams from 16 to 14 appears to have not dampened speeds all that much. Several course records have already been set. While that is arguably as much attributable to a period of unseasonably great weather, the fact is the reduction in team size has dramatically reduced the number of returned dogs in this year’s race. Out of 52 teams, there have been approximately 50 dogs dropped from competition from injury or illness with no serious injuries reported. That is fairly low for the midpoint of the race. In the front pack, only Ulsom and Seavey have dropped two dogs and the majority of the front pack still has a full team of 14 and a sizable advantage as the race moves forward.