The leading teams were nearing McGrath late March 8, roughly one-third of the way to the finish line at Nome. Ten teams were spread out over a 20-mile distance and each musher’s strategy was becoming more apparent.
“I think it’s important … to get them in a rhythm,” Yup’ik musher Mike Williams Jr. told Iditarod Insider at the start of the 975-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. “Stop, rest, eat, go. Stop, eat, go. And try to take some naps whenever you can.”
In the Iditarod, aka the Last Great Race on Earth, timing is as important as discipline, fitness and training: Setting and maintaining pace, deciding when to rest and eat, and taking advantage of opportunities to pick up speed when you can. When to take the mandatory 24-hour and eight-hour layovers becomes clearer strategically when the race gets closer to the midway point of Cripple.
First into McGrath was defending Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey (2015, 2014 and 2012); followed by his father Mitch, the 2013 and 2004 champion. Wade Marrs (career-best eighth, 2015), was third. Fourth into McGrath was Peter Kaiser, Yup’ik, two-time winner of the Kuskokwim 300 whose career-best Iditarod finish was fifth in 2012. John Baker, the first Inupiaq to win the Iditarod (2011), was 10th.Up to this point, weather had been relatively calm and trail conditions fast – icy, with a minimal amount of snow.
The leading mushers applied their strategy differently in McGrath. After a three-hour rest there, Dallas Seavey, who’d been taking breaks every other checkpoint and on the trail as well, got underway to Takotna averaging 8.18 mph.
Marrs decided to take his mandatory 24-hour rest at McGrath. “I had the option of going to Ophir or Takotna, but we’ve been having significantly faster run times than I had figured because of the nice trail,” he told Iditarod Insider. “So we’re about four hours ahead of schedule and I wasn’t ready to be four hours ahead of my schedule, so I gave it back [to the team] by stopping here. We’re still on … a 12-hour pace. I figured Dallas will be right around something like that and Mitch as well, so if they pull it off and we want to win this race, we’re going to have to be doing the same thing.”
Baker and his team took a 3 hour 30 minute rest – their third three-hour checkpoint rest to that point – at McGrath. His team “came in real good. Any time you come to McGrath in less than six hours, it’s a real good time. [It’s been] a real nice trail compared to what we’ve been through [in past years]. It’s been real rough before here, so it was really a pleasure.”
Of his strategy, he said, “I’m going to go from here pretty directly to Cripple so I wanted to rest here before I did that. It just fits the schedule I’ve been running.”
McGrath to Cripple, with Takotna and Ophir in between, is a long haul: 114 miles.
By Ophir, Baker and third-year Iditarod contender Noah Burmeister had moved into the top 3 and got within a mile of Dallas Seavey en route to Cripple. Seavey, who had taken another rest with his team on the trail, kicked into high gear. He and his team averaged 8.3 mph to Burmeister’s 7.5 and Baker’s 7.4, and the distance between them steadily grew.
Seavey reached Cripple at 3:31 p.m. Mach 9 with the nearest competitor 22 miles behind him. At Cripple, Burmeister was second, two-time champ Robert Sorlie (2005, 2003) was third, Baker was fourth.
By the time Dallas Seavey and team were settling into their mandatory 24-hour rest at the halfway point, his dad and other mushers were taking their 24-hour rests two checkpoints back, at Takotna (mile 329).
The elder Seavey told Iditarod Insider this: “There’s two different ways to look at that on the 24[-hour layover]. A lot of people just look at how far they ran and how long they’re going to rest and maybe by resting later they can get an advantage. I prefer to look at the dogs and how healthy and strong the dogs are. Historically, Takotna has never been wrong. You can’t make a mistake by 24’ing in Takotna.”
He told of mushers he’s known that have delayed taking their mandatory 24-hour layover, only to run into fatigue or other problems and have to take an unscheduled four-hour stop in addition to the required 24.
“I’d rather not take the chance of what could happen in a negative way to my dog team, going up the trail with all its unknowns,” he said. “You don’t know what’s out there, and racing at the pace that we do nowadays, I feel you’re at the cusp of going too far.”
Kaiser also decided to take his 24-hour layover in Takotna, pulling in at 9:28 p.m. March 8. “I’m trying to stop while they still look good,” he told Iditarod Insider. “I want to try to keep that going down the trail after this, keep going the same pace we’ve been going.” Kaiser and his team had averaged 8.446 mph over the distance between the previous six checkpoints.
“It’s really good for mushers to recoup also. [Takotna] is a good place to sleep and there’s lots of food to eat. That’s important too. The better condition the musher is in, the better you can take care of your team.”
Dallas Seavey completed his 24-hour layover at Cripple at about 3:10 p.m. March 10. But the previous evening, several well-fed and well-rested mushers and teams had gotten underway to catch him. Kaiser and his team pulled out of Takotna late March 9 just before midnight and blazed to Ophir in 2 hours 18 minutes, beating his Takotna-to-Ophir personal best by 2.5 hours.
What’s after Cripple?: Ruby, mile 495 (home of Athabaskan musher Emmitt Peters, “The Yukon Fox,” 1975 Iditarod champion); Galena, mile 545; Nulato, mile 582 (former site of a Russian trading post); Kaltag, mile 629 (Edgar Kalland, Athabaskan, carried diphtheria serum on this trail in 1925); Unalakleet, mile 710 (on the coast of Norton Sound); Shaktoolik, mile 745 (one of the most treacherous sections of the race, on ice over Norton Bay); Koyuk, mile 804 (overland); Elim, mile 852 (over the Kwiktalik Mountains, elevation 1,000 feet, to Golovin Bay); White Mountain, mile 898; Safety, mile 953; Nome, mile 975.
It’s all about the protein: According to the Iditarod media guide, sled dogs in the race need about 10,000 calories daily. “How that is attained depends on their feeding program, which varies from kennel to kennel. The core diet is a premium kibble, specifically designed to have much higher levels of protein and fat than regular commercial pet food. Additional fat supplements (saturated or unsaturated, i.e., animal or plant sources) are needed to attain the 10,000-calorie level. Meats and fish are used to enhance palatability and/or as snacks. Of course, the more fat that is in the meat, the less pure fat supplement needed.”
Veteran musher Mike Williams Sr. said his son Mike Jr.’s team’s diet consists of meat, fish, blubber, chicken, chicken skins, and Red Paw dog food.
Pinch yourself. It’s real: The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race crosses two mountain ranges, including North America’s largest mountain range, the Alaska Range, and runs along the Yukon River and over frozen Norton Sound. The race covers 1,000 miles of challenging, if not breathtakingly beautiful, terrain.
For all mushers and dogs, the Iditarod is a test of discipline, endurance and training. For indigenous mushers, it’s a deeper-level experience, an opportunity to retrace ancestral routes.
“Usually you’re half asleep, [but] sometimes you do soak it all in for a split second and kind of pinch yourself,” Kaiser told Iditarod Insider before the race. “I’ve grown up here. I take it for granted – it’s inevitable, you just do. I’ve been here for 28 years, but sometimes you do have to pinch yourself and say ‘OK, soak it in. This is pretty cool.’”
It’s a family affair: Brothers, sisters, father and son. For several mushers, competing in the Iditarod is a family event. “One thing that is really exciting this year is there’s three Redington brothers in there,” Ryan Redington, Inupiaq, told Iditarod Insider before the race. “I’m excited to be there racing with both of them. I think they’re both going to do real well and I’m going to have my work cut out for me to try to keep up with them.”
In this race: twin sisters Anna and Kristy Berington; brothers Jason and Lance Mackey; brothers Ray, Robert, and Ryan Redington; father and son Mitch and Dallas Seavey; and husband and wife Allen Moore and Aliy Zirkle.
The Redington’s grandfather, the late Joe Redington Sr., is known as the Father of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The Mackeys’ father, Dick Mackey, is a co-founder of the Iditarod and won the race in 1978. Jason and Lance’s brother, Rick, won in 1983.
With Lance’s four Iditarod championships (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010), the Mackey family owns six Iditarod titles. The Seavey family owns five: Dallas’ titles in 2015, 2014, and 2012; and Mitch’s titles in 2013 and 2004.
Yes, there is a doctor in the house: The career paths of some of the mushers are as varied as Alaska’s seasons. Some of the more unique: Rookie Kristin Bacon of Big Lake is a pediatric physical therapist. Robert Bundtzen (career-best 27th, 1997) of Anchorage is a doctor specializing in infectious diseases. Jason Campeau (18th, 2015) of Alberta, Canada is a sports agent and former professional hockey player. Zoya DeNure (career-best 53rd, 2008) of Delta Junction is a former fashion model; she and her husband operate a rescue and rehab for unwanted sled dogs. Rookie Tom Jamgochian of Nome is an assistant district attorney. Scott Janssen of Anchorage (career-best 38th, 2012) is a mortician. Kelly Maixner (career-best 13th, 2015) of Big Lake is a pediatric dentist. Rookie Kristin Knight Pace of Healy is a newspaper journalist-turned-backcountry ranger for the U.S. Forest Service.
Mushers to watch: Bailey Schaeffer’s mushing career is off to a strong start. The 15-year-old Inupiaq rookie – daughter of veteran musher Chuck Schaeffer – placed third in the Junior Iditarod on February 27, finishing with eight dogs in 14 hours 23 minutes 9 seconds – 1 hour 4 minutes 5 seconds behind repeat champ Kevin Harper. She and her team averaged 6.05 mph over the course of the 138-mile race.
While the race is reserved for mushers ages 14-17, it’s a true test of preparation, discipline and fitness for musher and dog: the race is an Iditarod qualifier, and several Junior Iditarod veterans have gone on to mush in the big race, among them four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey.
Look for Schaeffer and Harper in a future Last Great Race on Earth.