By: Michael Rogers
Over the 3rd day of the Iditarod, we’re seeing the mushers spread farther apart with several distinct groups forming. The mushers have made there way through the Alaska Range and most are either in or past Nikolai, the gateway to the Interior. The Interior portions of the course tend to be long river corridor runs between villages like Ophir, Takotna, and the ghost town of the trail’s namesake, Iditarod. The two long runs are Rohn to Nikolai at 75 miles and Ophir to Iditarod at 80 miles. Shageluk is properly considered the entry to the Yukon River section of the race and a racer can take their “Yukon 8” in Shageluk if they so choose.
Overnight, as the front edge of the pack trickled out of the Gorge and into Rohn, Petit and Kaiser camped in the Burn for a few hours and Joar Ulsom took first position into Nikolai. Petit, fresh off a rest stopped for mere moments in Nikolai and made the run into McGrath and captured the Spirit of the Iditarod award. The award is a pair of beaver mittens and a musher’s hat made by McGrath residents Loretta Mailelle and Rosalie Egrass. Arriving at 3:17p on Day3 also puts him as the fastest musher to arrive in McGrath in the history of the Iditarod.
By this point in the race, Mushers are spread out from Takotna at Mile 329 clear back to Rohn at Mile 188; a spread of 141 miles or more than 40% of the course to date. Historically speaking, the eventual winner will be one of the first dozen or so teams into Nikolai and they form the “front pack” for the rest of the race. We’re seeing some of the running and resting schedules becoming more evident as well. One of the mistakes that rookies make is to think at this point of the race that they’re racing other teams. They’re not; they’re managing a travelling dog team and striving to arrive on the Bering Coast in the “front pack” with enough dogs with enough strength to make the sprint into Nome. The real race begins in Kaltag, another 350 miles away from McGrath. The challenge is getting there in one piece with your dogs in good shape.
At this stage, you’ll also see mushers start to take their mandatory 24-hour rest. Generally the first of three mandatory rests, there is a 24 hour layover with the start time adjustment, an 8 hour layover on the Yukon between Shagulek and Kaltag, and an 8 hour layover at White Mountain. Those rests are good indicators of how a team will set up a run up the Yukon and where they plan to take their mandatory 8 hour there.
As of this writing, the “front pack” could be considered everyone at Mile 300 or farther- those were the first dozen into Nikolai and barring unforeseen issues will most likely contain the eventual winner. Anyone farther behind will be poorly positioned to arrive on the coast within enough time to be competitive. That’s not to say the unforeseen can’t happen.
Last year Nic Petit was all but declared the winner until a wrong turn put him behind Joar Ulsom. This year Linwood Fiedler has lost his dogs when his gangline snapped, Richie Diehl nearly knocked himself unconscious hitting a tree branch in the dark, and Jesse Holmes lost his trailer sled and had to make a 2 mile backtrack to retrieve it. It didn’t end any of these guy’s races, but it did eat up time that that the highly competitive teams up front won’t give them back. Jeremy Keller isn’t quite as lucky, he had to drop 4 dogs in Finger Lake and is currently running the remaining 9 in the Farewell Burn.
While the optimist in me would like to say at this point it’s anyone’s race, history and math would likely disagree with that assessment.