“We were circling out there…there was no trail and markers everywhere.”

Aliy Zirkle was first into the Iditarod checkpoint, but had a very difficult run. Not only was she breaking trail, but also had to deal with a poorly marked trail. Worst of all, the dogs know when the musher doesn’t know where they’re going, and they lose confidence quickly. I’ve seen teams do crazy things when they think the musher is no longer trustworthy. Fortunately, Aliy had a lot of years of trust with those guys, and they seemed just fine, but she lost a lot of time. Assuming she takes her 24, she can leave at 1:46am Friday.

Iditarod is a great checkpoint for analysis because they generally all stop there. It’s a baseline where all the different schedule merge. Girdwood 2 Nome Nick Petit and Joar Leifseth Ulsom will be be the first two to leave, and by a good margin. They’re clearly in command at this point, and racing each other. Nick hasn’t stopped since Ophir, appears to be going non-stop to Iditarod. Joar came from Takotna, stopped for 3 hours, but left right when Nick came past his camp. Joar is technically slightly ahead, but Nick’s actually moving faster for the first time this race. They’re both moving a shade over 8mph, compared to Aliy and Martin going 6mph last night.

Jessie Royer took a full 4 hour camp at Don’s cabin, she’s not racing the front two yet, but has a firm grasp on 3rd at the moment.

Martin Buser is in the mix out there too, and it’s kind of fun to see. He’s a full day behind (hasn’t taken 24), but clearly doesn’t care. He actually spent the night at Don’s cabin, 1:50am to 8:40am, got a good nights sleep, ate breakfast, and is undoubtedly having a better time than any of them.

Mitch Seavey has jumped into 4th (6th with Aliy and Martin in front). He only stopped for 2 hours outside Ophir, and I expect him to camp again before Iditarod. He told me he’s planning to add some more rest into the schedule, doubling down on the ‘this is going to get hard further along’ schedule.

After that, Pete Kaiser, Richie Diehl, Matt Hall, Matthew Failor, Ryan Redington, Travis Beals and Paige Drobny are all within a snack break of each other, and should make for some fun racing. The smaller overall field size certainly hasn’t affected the competitive side of things.

Team size is about to get interesting. So far mushers haven’t changed their strategy for the smaller team sizes (14 dog limit instead of 16). But Joar, Martin, Mitch and others left Ophir with only 12 dogs.

Sending two home by Ophir (mi.352) is no big deal. Being down to 12 is. Joar didn’t get down to 12 until Koyuk (mi. 827) last year. In fact, it was his team size that enabled him to push up the coast and win. Joar got to Koyuk with 13 and Nome with 8, following Dallas’ ‘go with the best and roll’ strategy.

By now, most mushers are sleep deprived. By tomorrow or the next day, their ability to think is seriously impaired. Autopilot takes over. I’ve They’ve done this 20 times, they know how the team should look at this point, and react accordingly. I’m curious to see how they handle the dog numbers. Instinct may tell them that they need to back off, 11 or 12 is too small a team on the river. Or it may tell them I’ve only sent 2 or 3 home, keep rolling, and they could finish with very small teams. Mitch and I had a discussion about this exactly before the start, we’ll see if he remembers.