This morning it was suggested that by tonight it would be possible to select three contenders, so here goes. Earlier I picked five likely contenders when the teams were around Ruby. Two of those have faded. Robert Sorlie has lost speed and dropped back, and is likely out of contention. Martin Buser is still in second, but his traveling speed is such that he isn’t likely to be able to keep up with the three faster teams now running near him. The three remaining teams, Aily Zirkle, Sonny Lindner and Jeff King should battle it out for the win. And it could be quite a battle.
Zirkle is in the lead. She has had some great runs to get where she is and will not surrender the lead easily. She uses ski poles most of the time, and has had excellent speed. Lindner is second and has the slowest average speed of the three, but has had a couple longer runs without a break. That tactic becomes significant from now on, as breaks become less possible. King has taken more breaks, but is moving the fastest of the three most of the time. The fact that both Lindner and King took their 24 hour break at Ruby is significant in figuring traveling speed. The posted speed is based on the entire race, and it appears that both teams have had a better speed compared to Zirkle since Ruby, although those precise numbers are not posted.
Zirkle left Unalakleet after a four hour break this evening. Teams trying to win sometimes go direct to Koyuk without a stop in Shaktoolik. I don’t expect Zirkle to do that yet. Seasoned race watchers have suggested to me she likes to take a break every six hours or so, and likely will keep that up as long as she is ahead. Lindner would be more likely to use that option to erase the lead Zirkle now has. King has also been breaking regularly, as he did last year after passing through Koyuk, in a move that enabled Mitch Seavey to pass him and win.
I have a set of eyes on the ground in Unalakleet, Andy Angstman, who is reporting what he sees. He has contributed to the naming of the three likely contenders, based on watching the teams arrive. I also had a chance to chat with five time champion Rick Swenson, who helped Lindner prepare for the race. Swenson of course knows more about racing the Iditarod than anyone, and he also helped me make my picks. Swenson reported that despite his age (64) Lindner is a master at going without sleep. There will likely be no sleep from now until White Mountain, and that is often a factor in deciding who wins.
A team that was moving fast in recent runs experienced difficulty just before reaching Unalakleet and scratched. Nic Petit was running in third place at the time. He had trouble at the spot where Jeff King’s team faltered in another recent Iditarod after a strong run. John Baker left Kaltag tonight in 18th place, and Katherine Keith arrived in Nulato this afternoon in 30th place. She has fallen well behind the top rookie Abbie West who left Kaltag in 16th place.
If there are three teams still in the running tomorrow evening it will be unusual. Most often there are one or two teams out of reach of their challengers by the time the front of the race reaches Elim. The race is on record pace, and there seems little reason to expect that will change. The record, of course, belongs to John Baker.