This article by Ben Matheson was originally published by Alaska Public Media. It was republished with permission through a partnership with KNOM.
Reigning champion Brent Sass did something very uncharacteristic when he pulled into the Iditarod checkpoint Thursday afternoon. He stopped for a break.
“I’m going to be here a couple hours at least, three hours, four hours”, Sass told the checkpoint officials. “See how long the heat lasts.”
Sass has almost completely avoided checkpoints the last few years, choosing instead to grab straw and camp on the trail. But at the race’s most remote checkpoint, the 2022 Iditarod winner wanted to get out of the sun.
“Nothing about this race is on schedule for me. It’s on my fifth plan [that] I’m right on schedule,” joked Sass.
He originally planned to run here for his 24 hour rest, but the warm weather nixed that plan. And he took the long break 80 miles earlier, in Ophir.
Now, he’s on another pause though this one much shorter. As the day pressed on, the race’s top contenders filed into the ghost town. It’s not much more than a few small cabins and wall tents across the river from collapsed century-old buildings dating to the gold rush boomtown. Here, mushers eyeing a top five spot got an extended look at their competition as they recalibrated their race plans.
Sass is hoping for a better second half than his first, after he dropped three dogs early in the race.
“You know you don’t really ever want to do that. But I had to, so I carried a bunch of dogs. There were definitely a bunch of trials and tribulations in the beginning,” said Sass.
Sass fed frozen salmon to his team of 11, which he said are running strong especially after their recent 24-hour break. An hour behind Sass was Jessie Holmes, who sped right through without stopping, possibly part of a move to try to get some distance between him and the teams in Iditarod.
Wade Marrs had been at the remote checkpoint since the middle of the night. His gambit was going all the way to the halfway mark before taking his 24-hour break.
“They might come off this looking like a million bucks and then get a couple runs in and see the effects of going too far. But at the same time, we may see the effects of going far enough. It could be really good,” said Marrs.
Richie Diehl was an hour and 10 minutes behind Sass coming into Iditarod. He ripped off his jacket under the hot sun and snacked his dogs with slabs of frozen pork belly, hoping to keep energy levels high for the next big chapter of the race.
“Getting to the Yukon with a good, steady team that has a lot left in the tank is pretty important,“ said Diehl. “The Yukon is a tough one to move up, with wind and weather. So if our team is healthy and strong, we should have a good run up the Yukon.”
That stretch of trail that was critical for positioning Pete Kaiser for his win in 2019. When Kaiser looked around the busy dog yard Thursday, he pointed out that no one has broken away with a decisive lead.
“I guess we’ll find out more in the next 100 miles or so,” said Kaiser. “But right now it’s probably anyone in this group’s race, and there are some strong teams behind us too.”
For his part, Kaiser plans to keep a conservative schedule on the runs over the sparse hills to Shageluk and toward the Yukon River. He says he can’t overdo it, knowing that there are plenty of speedy teams ready to race.
Image at top: Brent Sass arrives in Iditarod around 12:30 p.m. Thursday, the second musher into the remote checkpoint. (Ben Matheson/Alaska Public Media)