Long before the race ever starts, mushers pack their drop bags with gear and food to so that they have options for where and when to take their 24-hour mandatory rest along the Iditarod Trail.
This year, some of them tried something new, while others are doing what they know.
It’s only a matter of time before it becomes clear who has the winning strategy now that dog teams are starting to come off their long rest.
Not since 1975 has a musher driven a dog team as far as Ruby without 24 hours rest and won.
It’s where the Iditarod trail reaches the Yukon River and the first musher there wins a five-course meal cooked by a professional chef. That’s why four-time champion Jeff King says he shipped a bottle of wine.
“Because I’m going to be there a while and when I get there I’m going to be celebrating,” King said. “Actually it’s mimosa makings.”
King, like a number of experienced mushers, is set up to take his mandatory rest in a more than one place on the trail.
“There’s not a checkpoint I don’t have enough food and gear to put 24 hours in,” King said.
Brent Sass gave himself three options. This year, his team spent 24 hours camped under the spruce trees in a cozy corner of the Ophir dog yard. Harnesses were spread out to dry across the top of an old canoe that leaned up against a tree. The dogs nestled in to piles of straw, as snow quietly fell around them in fat fluffy flakes.
“This was my first choice,” Sass said.
In fact, Ophir is the first checkpoint he’s stopped at since he left the start line.
“It’s been fun getting through the checkpoints and stopping and watching everyone come by. I get to see everyone’s dog teams,” he said. “When you blow through the checkpoint – I got to see everybody.”
Sass says one musher stood out in particular as he passed through Ophir.
“The one thing that I do like and I think a couple of us have commented on is that Dallas Seavey is now out of his box,” Sass said. “He has a set schedule that he has run the last few years and he’s been robotic about it and going to Cripple or where ever he’s going is not part of that strategy.”
“That was part of our goals for all of us in this race.”
But for some mushers ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’
“Takotna is never wrong, for a place to take a 24,” Mitch Seavey said. His dog team was parked in the exact same spot at the bottom of a hill, just behind checkpoint headquarters. It’s where he always parks in Takotna.
MS: “Going beyond here seems like it’s more often a mistake than a benefit.”
ES: “It seems like maybe only one time, way back when Emmitt Peters won, did anyone take a 24 in Ruby and actually win the race.”
MS: “Well, it’s rarely been done, so if the best team went out there and did that, they might win. That’s what started the trend of people doing that in Cripple. Doug Swingley thought it was a good idea and he happened to have the power house team and it worked for him.”
Doug Swingley won the race three times in a row between 1999 and 2001.
MS: “But I have often said he could have taken his 24 anywhere and won those races because he had the team.”
ES: “So it’s more about the team than where you decide to take your long rest?”
MS: “Absolutely and that’s how we should use that rest, to maintain our teams.”
That’s exactly what Cim Smyth is doing in Ophir.
“Cripple was my number one option, and then I realized if I went on to Cripple I was going to have to leave several dogs,” Smyth said.
Smyth’s team caught a bug on the trail. He says the change of plans could have a significant impact on his race.
CS: “You know, I lost a lot of time by resting more coming in here.”
ES: “Yeah, but your team has more rest coming out of this 24, so it could play to your advantage?”
CS: “It could definitely play big to my advantage to come into the24 with a team that was still ready to go more, sometimes they can come back from that and just be unstoppable.”
Mushers won’t know for sure how the layover benefits their teams until they hit the trail, and even still, says Brent Sass, they’re not even halfway.
“The day after the 24, that’s when it all unfolds,” Sass said. “That’s when you start to see how people’s strategies are working out.”
He says it’s too soon to chase, but he knows the time is coming.