Takotna, AK - As teams come off their mandatory 24 hour rest and head for the Yukon River, they’ll be thinking of how best to pick up the pace in what is turning out to be one of the most dramatic, but also the most competitive races in Iditarod history.
Teams haven’t yet reached the halfway mark. 12 time finisher Hans Gatt says even though he’s running a competitive team, he hasn’t even thought about racing yet. “Well, usually you try to figure out any time after the 24 hour layover," says Gatt, "but we’ll probably have to wait until we get to Ruby.” Ruby is nearly 500 miles into the race. Gatt would have liked to there before he rested his team for 24 hours. “I had to kind of patch up the dogs a little bit," he says. "I had some sick dogs that didn’t eat so I had to 24 here, otherwise, I’d be way down the trail.”
But a stopover in Takotna was exactly what Aliy Zirkle had planned. “I always get to Takotna on my own schedule and never look at what’s happening. I’ve looked and seen what people are doing and it’s pretty interesting," says Zirkle. "I guess I’m going to stick on my own schedule until the Yukon and then see where it works out.” Her team was parked right next to defending champion Mitch Seavey’s. The two worked in the dog yard side-by-side, but shared few words as they focused on feeding their teams and packing their sleds. “We’re running our own dogs right now, so if you kind of start with what your own dogs can do and then get out a little bit later and see where you’re standing compared to everyone else, I guess that’s what we’re doing.”
Unlike other mushers, Zirkle says she isn’t scratching her head over the big, early push made by Martin Buser. “It shouldn’t be surprising after what he did last year,” she says.
It’s the second year in a row Buser has set a hard and fast pace early. Zirkle says she, like many, had expected Norwegian Robert Sorlie to be something of a rabbit this year. His team was parked further up the hill, also resting for 24 hours. “I think this is the best team I’ve run ever, so far but you never know,” says Sorlie. His team is energetic, boisterous and powerful. They’ve pulled him speedily over rough trail and dragged him through checkpoints, eager to keep moving down the trail. He says they haven’t even begun to race. “I have not pushed them yet. I have not pushed them," says Sorlie. "I will not push them before I get to Ruby and after that I think. They can go their own speed. That is the best for them, o go their own speed. They know best what they can do, not me.” Sorlie’s approach involves fast runs and lots of rest. He doesn’t like to change his ways.
A tried and true race plan is something former champion Dallas Seavey also likes to stick with. “Just because Aliy, myself, my dad – oh wait a second is that the first and second place mushers from the last two Iditarods? – Now what are all of us doing? We’re not doing a flashy race, but I can guarantee you, we’re all going to be there at the end.” The younger Seavey likes to keep things relatively simple. “A lot of times when I see mushers do big moves now, what it tells me is they’ve used their joker, they’ve played that card, they don’t have that card to play on the coast,” says Seavey.
Regardless of where mushers start to make strategic moves, they will eventually have to cut a little rest if they want to stay competitive. It’s something Ray Reddington Junior is well aware of. "Well, I’d like to start doing it somewhere along the river and I’m going to have a little bit of fun here myself and get a little pressure off the dogs. Hopefully our run times will stay up and some of these guys will slow down a little bit.”This is Reddington’s 13th Iditarod. He’s climbed his way into the top ten the last three consecutive years, but he says he can’t let his guard down. “I mean how many of us when you figure it out is within an hour or two of each other right now," says Reddington. "You can’t mess up. If you mess up now, you might have ten teams go by you just for one little hiccup.”
Teams have a quick jaunt over to Ophir out of Takotna where they can readjust their plans and take care of dogs. It’s still more than 140 miles to Ruby where the race meets the Yukon River and teams will presumably start to pick up the pace.