Kelly Maixner is leading the pack at Rohn Monday afternoon, epitomizing a strategy top mushers are using in their Iditarod run this year: short rests and early sprints to get to the head of the pack.
Nearly 24 hours into the race, the frontrunners chasing Maixner (who’s been in Rohn since 11:30 a.m.) include past champ Martin Buser (who was two and a half hours behind the leader out of Rainy Pass) and top-ten contender Paul Gebhardt (about four hours behind Maixner).
Girdwood musher Nick Petit, who finished sixth in last year’s race, continues his strong pursuit of the lead, leaving Rainy Pass just five minutes behind Maixner. Like Maixner, Petit has cut rest to make it to the front of the pack early; also like Maixner, it’s a gamble with an uncertain payoff.
(Buser cut rest and sprinted to an early 24-hour layover in Rohn last year, a move the resulted in a 17th-place finish but on a decidedly different trail.)
Behind Petit and Buser are Akiak’s Mike Williams Jr, Gebhardt, and Tok musher Hugh Neff. Outside Maixner and Petit's short rest times, the top five mushers are displaying somewhat similar run-rest strategies: Buser has rested once for four hours; Williams has twice spent just under three hours resting; Gebhardt with a single four-hour rest; and Neff has two three-hour rests behind him.
While the top mushers are racing to their 24 in Rohn, Nikolai, or McGrath, the front half of the race is still full of top contenders who are sticking to their game plans for victory in Nome.
Two Rivers musher Aliy Zirkle has been resting in Rainy Pass since 8:23 a.m., an uncharacteristic move for the musher who usually employs Yukon Quest-style rests outside of major checkpoints. Zirkle is down to 15 dogs after dropping one in Skwentna, where she also rested for just shy of four hours. Zirkle’s team will be well-rested as she tries to gain ground on the top five, but she was still a comfortable hour and a half ahead of the other mushers into Rainy Pass.
Those mushers behind Zirkle are a who’s who of Iditarod champs: Norwegian Robert Sorlie, running his first Iditarod in six years but with two championships under his belt, has been following a similar playbook to Zirkle: generous rest with fast times between checkpoints. Sorlie’s speeds between checkpoints are some of the fastest early on in the race, meaning his fast-but-steady clip could easily see him biting at the frontrunner’s heels.
(It’s interesting to note Sorlie’s strategy so far has differed from the one he employed during his first win in 2003, which saw a very slow pace between early checkpoints.)
While Sorlie may by changing it up, Jeff King is right behind him—just two minutes behind him into Rainy Pass, in fact—and is posting strong, steady runtimes between checkpoints that, so far at least, are better than the times he posted on his first-place finish in 2006, which was also on the Northern route.
Rounding out the top ten mushers is Hans Gatt, coming out of retirement he announced in 2011 and rocketing from a starting position of 58 and into the top ten. Gatt has also been posting low rest times and steady speeds, and with a history of top ten finishes, he’s clearly a contender for a top spot.
Defending champ Mitch Seavey dropped to 47th place Monday afternoon, and was still in Finger Lake, while 2012 winner Dallas Seavey jumped to 18th after pulling into Rainy Pass at 12:20 p.m.
The question now is just where mushers will take their mandatory 24-hour layover. It’s a question facing all the mushers, and as the top teams will raise or fall in the standings are the layovers are taken and others race on to later checkpoints, it’s still an open field with too many strong centeders in the race to know how it will play out.