Only Lance Mackey can lose about an hour getting lost at the end of a long run, and not have it effect his race much. Mackey is in control of this race now, the earliest he ever taken charge. Now the question is, can anybody challenge him?
Jeff King is obviously giving it his full effort. He took the gamble of a three-hour rest at Shageluk before setting off again. I wonder if that move was something he devised back when he rested his team on the way to Iditarod, or if he’s now simply pulling out the stops in an attempt to reel in Mackey.
King is currently trotting along ahead of the pack on the way to Grayling as I write. He still needs to take his mandatory eight-hour rest on the Yukon River. While Mackey, only a few miles behind King, already took his. That’s a big advantage to Mackey.
King could risk a mammoth-long run, blowing through Grayling and going to Eagle Island before taking his eight. It is risky, a roughly 15-hour run. Or he may take that eight-hour rest at Grayling, then take a short break at Eagle Island. He may opt to get that eight out of the way.
But short of some monumental effort on the part of King, Mitch Seavey, Sebastian Schnuelle or Aaron Burmeister, Mackey has positioned himself with a very comfortable buffer for the run up the coast to Nome.
There are some incredibly strong teams just behind those I just mentioned — Dallas Seavey comes to mind, not to mention Sonny Lindner, Hans Gatt, Cim Smyth and a few others — but I’m not sure they have enough miles to reel in a team like Mackey’s, which is running so smoothly and staying so strong. He’s still got 16 dogs. (Cim Smyth certainly is making a push — 3:14 to Anvik — that’s a decent speed.)
This is where I really would like to be in Grayling, to watch those first five or six teams come through. You can get a good sense of how sharp the dogs (and drivers) are. The teams’ speeds, the dogs’ focus on the trail, their appetites and overall demeanor.
There is some serious gut-check racing going on out there right now. The mushers are asking themselves: Should I cut rest? Should I skip checkpoints? They know in their bones how far their dogs can jog along comfortably. But they are also dealing with personal sleep deprivation. They’ve got to make the right call at this point.
Getting back to my lead sentence: Probably everyone knows by now that Mackey dozed on the runners leaving Shageluk and his team took a wrong turn, costing him 45 minutes to an hour or so. Mackey has missed trails many times over the years, and it never seems to make any difference. In one Yukon Quest, he went two or three HOURS out of his way getting to the finish line, which was in Dawson that year, and he still won. (I’ve made two wrong turns ever; one, only a minute or two to fix a tangle, cost me first place; and the second, this year at King Solomon’s dome in the Quest, I spent 20 minutes making sure I was on the right trail, and it cost me the halfway prize. I’m not complaining, just pointing out how Mackey has a knack for winning despite some massive self-imposed delays. His team is just that good.)
The mistake lengthened his run, but knowing him and his dogs, I doubt it put even a dent in his team’s attitude or speed.
From Grayling, the race literally drops over a bluff on to the wide Yukon River. It is a bit of a grind heading upriver to Eagle Island, which is a tent camp tucked into a slough sheltered from the wind. It can take about nine hours to get there from Grayling. It is just about as far, and just about as mind-numbingly dull, traveling up to Kaltag. Maybe an eight hour run. These times are approximate. Every year has different snow conditions and temperatures.
No matter how you slice this next section of trail, you wind up with some pretty long runs. There’s nowhere good to pull over and camp on the Yukon, unless the weather is unusually mild. Hunkering down in the wind is supremely unpleasant. Mushers will make long legs to Eagle Island, Kaltag; and the race leaders will make the 10 to 12 hour run from Kaltag to Unalakleet, and so it will continue to Nome.