Resting becomes strategic as Iditarod teams push through McGrath

Nicholas Petit signing in for a short stop before heading back onto the trail. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/KSKA)
Nicolas Petit signing in for a short stop before heading back onto the trail. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/KSKA)

Mushers have reached a point in the Iditarod where rest becomes strategic.

Overnight, a number of them opted to push their teams further down the trail, while others chose to hunker down for a mandatory 24-hour rest.

The majority of mushers who arrived first into McGrath, didn’t stay long, but some of their decisions earlier in the race, might offer clues about their race plans.

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Brent Sass pulled ahead of the field after he blew through Nikolai.

Shortly after leaving the checkpoint, Sass stopped to camp in the midday sun for roughly four hours. That’s why it didn’t come as a surprise to see him quickly blow through the McGrath checkpoint.

“I’m just going through,” he said as he signed in and out and took off.

He wasn’t the only musher that opted not to stay.

Mitch Seavey told the crowd he was moving 100 miles and hour.

Mitch Seavy pulling in to McGrath in second, just after Dallas, then getting immediately back on the trail. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/KSKA)
Mitch Seavy pulling in to McGrath in second, just after Dallas, then getting immediately back on the trail. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/KSKA)

“Feels like it. My feet are worn out from the brakes,” he said. He said his dogs were doing well. “I’m thrilled. This is fun!”

He took off with a wide smile, perhaps in part because the conservative musher was following a plan he has successfully executed before.

Aliy Zirkle quickly blew through as well, staying only long enough to share some jokes with the locals and accept a high five from one of McGrath’s many kids.

“It’s going great, the dogs are good, I’m good, I love Alaskan people,” she smiled as she sped away.

Zirkle is also following a schedule that’s similar to those she has run in the past. But that’s not the case for Noah Burmeister. He hasn’t driven a team in the Iditarod in a decade.

Takotna has proven to be a popular stop for winning mushers along the Iditarod's northern route. (Map by Ben Matheson/Alaska Pubic Media, data via CartoDB, MushingTech, Iditarod, and Alaska DNR)
Takotna has proven to be a popular stop for winning mushers along the Iditarod’s northern route. (Map by Ben Matheson/Alaska Pubic Media)

He spent a few minutes in the checkpoint talking over one of his dogs with Head Veterinarian Stu Nelson before he pulled his hook and took off down the trail for Takotna.

Burmeister also camped earlier in the afternoon. Perhaps he was hoping to move beyond Takotna before bedding his dogs down for 24 hours, or maybe he just wanted to rest in the middle of the day – sometimes mushers’ race plans aren’t always what they seem.

Not everyone took off right away, however.

Wade Marrs stopping in McGrath, where he declared his 24 hour rest. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/KSKA)
Wade Marrs stopping in McGrath, where he declared his 24 hour rest. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/KSKA)

In fact, Wade Marrs pulled in, and promptly declared he’d be taking his 24 hour mandatory rest here. Marrs is battling a cold.

“[I’ve] been coughing a lot and a lot and a lot, so hopefully we can get that taken care of,” Marrs said. “I just got some stuff from Dr. Carson here, nice guy, so hopefully that helps out.”

Still, that’s not why he decided to rest here.

“This was our plan, and I really like it at McGrath here,” Marrs said. “You get a lot of good attention from the vets, seeing as there’s not many teams here, you get a lot of attention from the volunteers, and good food and you don’t have a lot of people—too many people around you.”

But Marrs is an exception among the first dozen mushers to reach McGrath.

Those that didn’t shoot away, only stayed for a quick rest. Dallas Seavey was the first in, and surprised many when he opted to stay for three hours.

Lance Mackey was ninth into McGrath, and stopped for a little over two hours, splitting apart square plastic bowls frozen together and ladling a hot salmon and kibble broth to his dogs.

“How many people you know feed their dogs out of cat-litter boxes?” he said.

Volunteers welcoming Dallas Seavey, the first musher into McGrath. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/KSKA)
Volunteers welcoming Dallas Seavey, the first musher into McGrath. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/KSKA)

Mackey says it’s just a little easier to deal with some kinds of chores here.

“I just wanna be able to give ‘em a good break, a little break I should say,” Mackey said. “And I wanna fill my thermos and do some things I don’t really feel like doing in Takotna.”

Mackey says Takotna has too many distractions, and he plans on stopping there just long enough to grab supplies. Asked where he’d be taking his 24, Mackey was less than forthright.

“I would have to say…somewhere before White Mountain,” he said.

In a building by the checkpoint, Mackey downed soup at a table next to Jon Baker, who arrived right after him into McGrath. And Baker’s reasons for staying are part animal care, and strategy, but other reasons, too.

“I got family and friends that I wanted to visit, some things going on here that I wanted to be a part of,” Baker said.

Experienced mushers know to keep their options open, and set themselves up for a 24 our mandatory rest at more than one checkpoint.

For now, Baker says he’ll probably take his in Takotna.