Lagging behind to let dogs conserve their energy is among the strategies employed by top mushers. But holding back can also backfire if the timing is miscalculated, for example, or if a fierce blizzard strikes at the wrong time.
Four-time champion Martin Buser had the early lead Monday, pulling into the Rohn checkpoint at 9:53 a.m. He arrived about four hours ahead of the second-place musher, Matt Failor.
He was followed by another musher with impressive credentials – four-time champion Lance Mackey. He pulled into the Finger Lake checkpoint on Sunday night, spending just a couple minutes resting before heading out again.
For defending champion Dallas Seavey, patience and trust in his dog team paid off last year, when he became the Iditarod’s youngest winner at age 25. He didn’t charge to the front until later in the race, but he still reached the finish line in Nome an hour before his closest competitor. To rest some of his older veteran dogs more, Seavey sometimes carried them in his sled for long stretches.
“It takes an uncommon amount of confidence in your dog team to watch those front-runners get away from you,” Seavey said.
Two Rivers musher Allen Moore, who is running the Iditarod, won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race in February by choosing to rest his dogs. His main rival, 2012 Quest winner Hugh Neff, chose to run.
“He gambled that he could go,” Moore said. “I was gambling that this rest would help me to be faster.”
Then there’s the strategy of deception, as employed in 2008 by Mackey. He and Jeff King were running neck and neck. Mackey arrived three minutes ahead of King at a checkpoint 123 miles from the finish line and made a big show of settling in for a nap. King’s team settled in, too.
However, Mackey told checkpoint volunteers to wake him in an hour. He sneaked out 70 minutes ahead of King and won the race.