Push or pause? Near Iditarod’s mid-point, mushers decide when to rest

A team travels on the Iditarod trail to Tanana. (Photo: Ben Matheson, KNOM)

It’s break time on the Iditarod trail, as teams hunker down for 24 hours of uninterrupted rest along the Yukon River or consider pushing down the trail to a later checkpoint. As the race approaches the halfway point mushers try to plan how to get the most from their tactical breaks.

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As Jason Mackey laid out beds for his team’s rest he bangs tug line clips against one another to break off frozen dog poop.

Mackey is racing at the front of the pack and arrived 6th into the checkpoint Thursday morning.

“I’ve been feeding beaver meat all year,” Mackey said. “I don’t know, maybe the temperature wasn’t adequate for it; but, I’ll tell you what, it wasn’t pleasant when these girls were getting rid of it.”

Mackey calls this year’s team boisterous.

“These guys have been looking good and getting stronger every step of the way; they had been until this last run,” Mackey said. “Maybe it did have something to do with the beaver meat. They were a little bit flat. They do look good, but these guys have a spark to them like not many teams.”

Mackey said that means it might be time for a day off at the Galena checkpoint. As the race detours off the Yukon river for a sharp, out-and-back loop up to Huslia, several contending teams are on their 24-hour rests or are getting close to it.

Yukon musher Michelle Phillips is pushing ahead and stops only briefly in Galena to snack her dogs frozen chunks of meat and drop one dog.

She left seconds behind Jessie Royer with a full bale of straw to have camping options along the way.

Jeff King bringing water to his team in Galena (Photo by Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media)

Mushers’ individual plans for 8- and 24-hour breaks are spreading teams across hundreds of miles of trail. Some have yet to take the long breaks, like Mitch Seavey, who is racing towards Huslia.

Jeff King already did his 8-hour break in Tanana, which he said was less about banking rest and more about getting his team on circadian rhythms in which they rest overnight and run in milder, daytime temperatures through the deep freeze of the early race. The exhausted four-time champion plans to take his 24 hour break in Galena.

“I want to make sure I get the full benefit from my 24,” King said. “If you go too far before you take it, it’s real hard to get it back.”

Overall, it’s a relatively tight race, with the entire field on the section of trail between Huslia and down river of Tanana. As some mushers push to get to their long, 24-hour rests, others aren’t far from coming off their breaks and hitting the trail with fresh teams.

Ben Matheson is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network.

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