Iditarod update: The trail gets shorter, and the race field gets smaller

A musher makes dog food.
Dallas Seavey pours boiling water into a mix of meat, kibble and fat, the first of multiple courses he gave his dogs upon arriving in McGrath on Tuesday. Seavey is taking his 24-hour break at the checkpoint. (Zachariah Hughes/for ADN)

It’s the fourth day of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and an already-shortened trail has gotten a little shorter.

Plus, Eureka’s Brent Sass and his 14 dogs are first to the race’s halfway point.

A musher has tested positive for COVID-19.

And, off the trail, Aliy Zirkle has made it back home and is resting, after suffering a concussion and other injuries while racing.

RELATED: Iditarod musher tests positive for COVID-19, withdrawn from race

Here’s our mid-week Iditarod update:

A 20-mile chop

Officials say teams will no longer loop from the checkpoint of Iditarod, out to the remote ghost town of Flat and back.

Race Director Mark Nordman said there’s too much loose snow in the area.

“The Iditarod trailbreaker crew has had a challenging time breaking the trail open due to the sheer volume of accumulated snow, and has been unable to dig out a safe, well-marked trail to allow teams to travel to Flat,” he said in a statement on Wednesday

Sleds sit under a big blue tarp in the snow.
Extra sleds are sent out by mushers who may change out damaged equipment or have a back up on hand for different trail conditions. They are stored under tarps in McGrath, near race mile 311 on the way to the race’s halfway point. (Zachariah Hughes/for ADN)

The trail to Flat would have been new for Iditarod teams.

The usual 1,000-mile race from Willow to Nome was rerouted this year to the shorter, out-and-back course to avoid putting mushers, race volunteers and others in the village checkpoints north of the Alaska Range and along the Bering Sea coast, as a precaution against spreading COVID-19.

Eliminating the Flat detour cuts roughly 20 miles from what would have been an 850-mile trail.

A map shows the new race route for the 2021 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. A red line snakes from Anchroage to around Iditarod and back.
A map from the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race shows the approximate 2021 route in red. Race officials say the trail will start and end near Willow. On Wednesday, race officials cut the loop to Flat because of snow conditions. (Courtesy of

Now, teams will race to the checkpoint of Iditarod and turn around, backtracking to Willow.

Brent Sass first to halfway

Brent Sass at the 2020 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race ceremonial start in Anchorage Saturday, March 7, 2020. Sass placed fourth in last year’s race. (Joey Mendolia/Alaska Public Media)

Brent Sass and 14 sled dogs reached the checkpoint of Iditarod at 6:08 p.m. Wednesday.

For the first-place arrival, Sass will get to pick his prize: either $3,000 in gold nuggets or a smartphone with a year of free GCI service.

RELATED: Catch up on the 2021 Iditarod on episode two of this season’s Iditapod.

Sass is a three-time 1,000-mile Yukon Quest winner, who placed fourth in last year’s Iditarod.

He and his dogs will take their mandatory 24-hour stop at the Iditarod checkpoint, near race mile 430.

Meanwhile, teams just coming off their daylong layovers are on their way, including Dallas Seavey, Joar Leifseth Ulsom and Pete Kaiser, all former race champions.

A musher rests under a parka, near a dog team and in front of a mountain range
Pete Kaiser naps under his coat during a stop at the Rainy Pass checkpoint along the Iditarod Trail on Monday. (Zachariah Hughes / for ADN)

Johnson tests positive for COVID-19, Mackey drops out, Zirkle resting at home

The number of mushers still on the trail dropped to 42 on Wednesday.

That’s after Gunnar Johnson of Minnesota was withdrawn. Johnson tested positive for COVID-19 at the McGrath checkpoint, near race mile 310.

The Iditarod announced the positive test in a statement late Wednesday. It’s the first confirmed coronavirus case during the competition.

Read more about the positive COVID-19 test here.

Also on Wednesday, rookie Brenda Mackey of Two Rivers dropped out of the Iditarod in Nikolai, near race mile 260. She had nine dogs and “made the decision to scratch in the best interest of her race team,” said a brief Iditarod statement

Mackey’s uncle is four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey. She’s the third musher to scratch from the race since it started.

A sled dog team races on a snowy trail with a plane and mountains in the background.
Pete Kaiser leaves the Rainy Pass checkpoint, high in the Alaska Range, during the Iditarod on Monday. (Zachariah Hughes / for ADN)

The first was Minnesota musher Cindy Gallea who became sick on the trail.

Also, Iditarod fan favorite Aliy Zirkle’s race ended Monday night after she fell while racing to the Rohn checkpoint. 

Zirkle told Iditarod Insider that she suffered a concussion and dislocated shoulder. The Alaska Air National Guard helicoptered her to an Anchorage hospital.

RELATED: Musher Aliy Zirkle is injured on Iditarod trail, flown to Anchorage for care

By Tuesday night, Zirkle had made it back home to Two Rivers, near Fairbanks, according to a post on her kennel’s website.

“She has more doctor appointments set in the next little while but she is being well taken care of,” the SP Kennel post said. “She appreciates all the love being sent her way.”

An update on Aliy and the dogs. “Aliy will keep moving forward.” Edit: seem y’all crashed the website :). Here’s what…

Posted by SP Kennel – Aliy Zirkle and Allen Moore on Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at or 907-550-8447.

Tegan Hanlon is the deputy digital editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at

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