Kyle Hopkins in Unalakleet --
As the Iditarod leaders arrive here in Unalakleet this morning and prepare for the long push up the Norton Sound coast, there’s one tactic that may emerge.
You’ve already seen it once before in this race. The decision by Aliy Zirkle to ignore checkpoint rests and break up the run from Takotna to Galena with a series of shorter runs is a Yukon Quest approach to racing, said Iditarod veteran and race analyst Bruce Lee.
That’s because the Quest has longer distances between checkpoints, so mushers are accustomed to making trailside stops rather than waiting to park their team in a town or village, said Lee, who covers the race for Iditarod Insider.
The first musher to White Mountain will be the likely winner. So what mushers may do, Lee said, is take a Quest-style approach, similar to 2000 Quest champion Zirkle.
Rather than rest their dogs at checkpoints between Unalakleet and White Mountain, a musher could split the overall 170-mile-or-so run into comfortable, bite-sized segments, resting wherever they see fit along the trail.
The Iditarod now allows mushers to use GPS units in their sleds, which makes it easier to determine precisely how far they've traveled between checkpoints. Zirkle said that's how she gauged her run through Ruby.
One of the most unusual things about this year’s race is how many legitimate contenders there are, Lee said. By now, one or two clear favorites have usually emerged. Baker was fully in control of the race at this point in the 2011 Iditarod, for example. Before that, it was Mackey.
This year, any number of teams could win, Lee said.
“All those teams have weak points and all those teams have strengths."
Meantime, the checkpoint building is beginning to draw a crowd as former Unalakleet Mayor and Iditarod veteran Middy Johnson fries bacon and photographers fuss over their gear in anticipation of Zirkle’s arrival.
The official distance from Unalakleet to Koyuk – the run up the coast – is officially 90 miles. The GPS tracker map places it at 82 miles. From there, the race heads west for Nome. Getting to White Mountain with a cushion is paramount in any leader's mind because they will be able to take a mandatory 8-hour rest and refresh their dogs.
Koyuk to White Mountain is an additional 94 miles officially, but only 85 miles, according to the GPS tracker.
(Pinpointing actual race distance is difficult … there’s always a gap between what the tracker map shows and what Iditarod lists as official distances. To complicate things, the actual trail changes slightly year to year.)