I'm sure by now most of you are aware of the near photo finish for the winners just after 4am AK time today. But in case you missed it, permit me a recap...
Jeff King was the first musher into the second-to-last checkpoint of White Mountain yesterday, and, with 77 miles to the finish and nearly an hour lead on Aliy Zirkle, the next closest team, King was certainly favored to win. But clearly it is hard to call the odds when Mother Nature is a key variable. Although temps were staying around 0F, the trail on this last stretch was glare ice, and the introduction of severe winds threw a monkey wrench at the lead mushers. Gusts were reported at 35mph - 65mph, blowing teams off course and greatly increasing the chances of frost bite for anyone stalled out there (check out this National Weather Service Wind Chill chart to see what I mean...).
Allegedly King was 10-20 miles outside of Safety when his team was blown off course and into a jumble of drift wood and brush. As he worked to untangle his team and get moving again, Aliy was, unknowingly, able to pass him in the dark. She didn't know she had regained the lead when she reached the last checkpoint of Safety. I'm also guessing she didn't realize how closely Dallas Seavey was nipping at her runners. And it may be a while before we have a better sense of exactly what went down out there. Whatever the case, King ended up scratching from the race before Safety, leaving Aliy and Dallas to battle it out over the final 22 miles.
I can't help but wonder at the role imperfect information played on the trail for this year's winners. Aliy didn't know she had passed King and regained the lead until she checked into Safety. Dallas was 2 hours 46 minutes behind King and 1 hour 48 minutes behind Aliy out of White Mountain. Running a 7-dog team to their 11-dog teams, he probably didn't realize he had closed the gap on the leaders as much as he had. But as mushers are known for saying, you're only as fast as your slowest dog. And in a race like this, that slowest dog may actually be the musher!
Maybe it was the brutal weather. Maybe Aliy thought she had a wider margin. Maybe her dogs were threatening to call it quits. Maybe Dallas promised his 7 remaining dogs Hawaiian vacations and a lifetime supply of filet mignon... I may not know the 'why', but the deciding 'what' appears to have been Aliy's 2 hour 38 minute rest in the checkpoint of Safety vs Dallas' 3 minutes. The end result was a Dallas Seavey victory in a record-breaking 8 days, 13 hours, 4 minutes, and 19 seconds. I suspect this is the closest finish in Iditarod history as well, with Aliy under the burled arch only 2 minutes and 22 minutes later.
So, is it over now? AB-SO-LUTE-LY NOT!! Say it again! We may have the first 3 teams into Nome as of this writing, but that means there are still 47 teams out on the trail, Kristy and Anna among them. You may also notice by that tally that the number of teams having scratched this year is now up to 19.
Kristy pulled into Shaktoolik (race mile 754) at 10:15pm AK time Monday night. I expect to see her reported out of that checkpoint at any time. Anna pulled into Shaktoolik Tuesday morning at 6:45am and, after just over 10 hours enroute, I expect she will take a fairly lengthy rest here before hitting the trail to Koyuk Tuesday afternoon.
The 60 miles or so of trail between Shaktoolik and Koyuk runs over a delta of grassland and low brush, broken up by the occasional rocky slope. It is reported as rough and once again nearly completely devoid of snow. Where it isn't barren dirt, it is a slick highway of glare ice. Teams are running this stretch along the shore of Norton Bay, instead of striking out in a straight line across the ice, to avoid the jumble of windblown mini-glaciers and, a bit further out, the potential for open water. There is a severe weather alert all along the Bering Sea coast due to winds and low temps. For the teams still out on the trail, there is still a lot to contend with.
If I had to venture an early guess, I think we see the twins closing in on Nome about 2 1/2 days from now, or Thursday afternoon, Alaska time, on March 13th. We've seen what Mother Nature can do to the viability of my predictions, though, so stay tuned as the twins tackle the remaining 220 miles or so of the Iditarod trail.
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