If you want to experience the Sounds of Norton Sound, may I suggest you find a friend with a driver's license, a vehicle, and a stretch of open road that will allow the driver to get to speed. At 30-50mph, open the window, stick your head out, and... tah-dah! That wind noise should be pretty similar to what the mushers are experiencing as they hit the coast.
Mushers have been out on the trail for 8 days and nearly 20 hours now. Joar Leifseth Ulsom managed to recapture the lead from Nic Petit Monday afternoon when Nic's team lost the trail on the sea ice between Shaktoolik and Koyuk. With multiple reports of high winds, blowing snow, and, at times, blizzard conditions, mushers are having to keep a close watch on trail markers to make their way - something that is frequently easier said than done. Just ask Petit, who's 13 hour detour-run between Shak and Koyuk, compared to Joar's 8 hour 13 minute efficiency-run, may have just cost him the race.
But having followed the Iditarod for as many years as I have, I should know only too well by now that it isn't over until it's over. And with Joar into White Mountain at 7:52am this morning, taking his final mandatory 8 hour rest and then facing "only" 77 miles to Nome, the proverbial fat lady may be warming up, but she's not singing yet.
The GPS trackers have Joar's closest competitors, Nic Petit and Mitch Seavey, 10-20 miles out of White Mountain, and the closest contenders for the race to win. The next race-within-the-race appears to be taking place by the 20 or so teams on the 48-mile stretch between Koyuk and Elim. These mushers are within 200 miles of the finish, fighting for a spot in the top 20 (which are the "in-the-money" positions for the primary race purse). There are a lot of familiar mushing names in this group, including Ray Redington, Pete Kaiser, Aaron Burmeister, Aliy Zirkle, and the 2017 Humanitarian Award winner Jessie Royer. A third competitive contingent seems to have formed amongst the mushers currently between mile 700 or so (on the stretch between Kaltag and Unalakleet) and those teams into Shaktoolik, mile 777. These teams will reach Nome rounding out the top 30, an important psychological milestone for many mushers and one Anna will certainly have in the back of her mind with her personal best prior finish in 28th place. But she cannot underestimate the quality and experience of the teams she has been running with, which includes former champions Martin Buser and Jeff King. Finally, you have the 15 teams that are just into or approaching Kaltag, race mile 652. They are probably all too cognizant of how long they have been out there, and how far they still have to travel. With the majority of these teams rookies, I have to imagine they're focused on dog care and to simply keep going.
Watch for Joar to hit the trail again as soon as his 8hr is up, or at 3:52pm Alaska time Tuesday afternoon. Last year, Joar finished in 4th place. He needed 6hr 41min to run from White Mountain to Safety, and another 3hr 2min to get from Safety to Nome, or a total (with 2 min of rest in Safety) of 9hr 45min. If he has a similar pace this year and no mishaps, he could claim the 2018 Iditarod Championship around 2am Alaska time Wednesday morning.
What about our Seeing Double teams? It's a bit too early yet for me to start predicting when they're likely to finish, but I'll get to that in the next entry. In the meantime, I can tell you Anna pulled out of Shaktoolik, race mile 777, at 10:32am Tuesday morning in 26th place. When we last left her on Sunday, she was nearing Kaltag. She took a 6hr 50min rest in Kaltag before heading out on the 85 mile stretch to Unalakleet. She spent 16 1/2 hours on this stretch, arriving in Una before 8pm Monday night. The Iditarod Insider caught up with her in this checkpoint and posted a nice long interview. For those who are not paid Insider subscribers, I can tell you she sounded really good! She joked that there has been no lack of snow this year, with some of the most challenging trail she's seen this year on the section into Iditarod and on through Shageluk. The snow was very deep, the trail hard to decipher. She said both she and the dogs worked really hard on that stretch given the deep snow, the need to break trail, the unusual warmth this year, and the hills along that section. When asked about her dogs, she mentioned two in particular. Beaker, part of the Muppet litter, made his first run to Nome last year, and finished the entire race. Anna was hoping she could rely on him again this year and so far, she has. Beaker has spent a lot of time in lead, and, even for a young dog, has really excelled in challenging conditions that often involved breaking trail. The other dog she mentioned was Kiwi. On loan from another musher, Kiwi required a lot of work over the season. He went from a dog that hated having his feet touched and freaking out at the sound of Velcro (which is on every bootie and the dog jackets), to being a really great dog and excellent cheerleader on the team. Anna said once in a while he still has a Velcro phobia, but by and large he has turned into an excellent dog and is an asset to the team.
Another great thing about the Insider video? I got some clarity on which dogs she has dropped. I was previously under the impression Quintes had been dropped in Grayling. And that is what the paperwork said. But then I spotted him in the video with Anna in Una, which is well beyond Grayling! So I was confused, and promptly got in touch with our DDC Jack. He doubled checked and sure enough, the paperwork erroneously said Quintes, but his collar revealed it was really RT (who was dropped with signs of lameness in his right shoulder). So this means the 11 dogs in front of Anna's sled out of Grayling included: Little Bit, Kiwi, West, Beaker, Quintes (not RT), Hale, Cannonball, Sweetums, Pilgrim, Tornado, and Rizo. Anna did drop one dog in Unalakleet after her interview, leaving her 10 precious pups in harness.
Anna also commented that it was a little weird not running in close proximity to her twin, and this Mad Blogger has to agree. We last left the Lovebirds out of Grayling Sunday morning and making their way on the long stretch through Eagle Island and on to Kaltag. After nearly 22 hours out on the trail, they arrived in Kaltag just after 8am on Tuesday. They took a 7 hour rest here. Andy had dropped one dog in Grayling and Kristy dropped one in Kaltag, so when they hit the 85 mile trail on their way to Unalakleet, Kristy had 12 dogs in harness, Andy had 11. It was another long slog between checkpoints, and after 17 1/2 hours, they pulled into Unalakleet just before 9am Tuesday morning. They'll take a good long rest here, I'm sure, before heading out onto the sea ice to Shaktoolik.
The spread on our leader board sure has changed! First place at mile 921, Anna at 793, Kristy & Andy at 737, and our current red lantern back at mile 558! That's a lot of trail for organizers to keep track of.
Here are some more pictures from recently in the race. I grabbed a number of stills from the Insider video with Anna, as well as a few others to try and give you a sense of what things are like out there right now. And see that Coleman Personal 24 cooler Anna is using? The twins LOVE this size and style of cooler, but sadly Coleman quit making them (mushers must be the only ones that liked the fully removable lid...). If any of our fans ever stumble across one, be it new or in good used condition, at a discount store, in your garage, or at a garage sale... grab it! We cannot find enough of these exact coolers, and dread the day we have to replace them. If you find one, email the Mad Blogger and we'll find a way to get it to Seeing Double. :)