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MCGRATH — Musher Sebastien Dos Santos Borges was surprised at how similar Wednesday’s weather in McGrath was to his hometown in France.
“In France, it’s this kind of snow. It’s very wet,” he said. ”It’s crazy.”
Borges was among more than a dozen dog teams resting at the checkpoint at McGrath Wednesday afternoon. The community of about 300 is located roughly a third of the way into the Iditarod, at race mile 311. This is the Alaska Interior, known for its cold and dry winters. But this day was snowy and warm. The temperature hovered above freezing.
Many mushers take their mandatory 24-hour stops here. Borges was doing just that.
This is his second Iditarod.
In 2019, he dropped out in Unalakleet, about three-quarters of the way. This year, he said, he wants to make it beyond there, but only if his dogs and he remain at least 90% happy. He said he’s been running along with his dogs, or pushing a ski pole across the ground when standing on the runners, to help propel his team forward.
“I run, I run, I run — every day, every hour, every minute,” he said. “I use a ski pole too and I run, run, run, run to help my dogs and when I stop, you know, my dogs turn to see what’s happening.”
Iditarod rookie Joe Taylor was also taking his required 24-hour break in McGrath. He said he’s scarred after travelling the dusty, bumpy and windblown trail into the prior checkpoint, at Nikolai.
Still, he said he feels “surprisingly good.”
“I did not imagine I’d be this happy at this point,” he said while feeding his dogs. “This is now the farthest I’ve ever gone with a dog team.”
Veteran Iditarod musher Lev Shvarts was also taking his long stop in McGrath, though by the afternoon he was kicking himself. His dog team was awake, not snoozing like the other teams.
“I was mistaken. I was severely mistaken. I should have gone to Cripple,” he said. “But I mean, it’s okay for them. They’re fine. Like, rest never hurts them. I just think I gave up a couple positions by not pushing. But that’s racing.”
Cripple is about 115 miles further down the trail, a remnant of the gold rush era. No one lives there. And it’s a lot quieter than McGrath.
But by mid-afternoon, the McGrath checkpoint was pretty quiet, too. Mushers tended to their dogs or slept in the airplane hangar. Mushers would roll in every 30 minutes or so, and some dogs would bark or look up for a second.
While second-guessing his decision on rest, Shvarts was pleased with his dogs’ speed. He said his male lead dogs were distracted by two female dogs on the team who are in heat.
“I thought they were going really slow. But after I declared my 24, I looked at the run sheet there, they’re the same speed as everybody around me,” he said. “It’s a far better dog team than I thought it was.”
Shvarts said he can’t sleep too much on his 24-hour break or else he’ll get tired again.
“If I just keep my body in this weird hour or two nap thing, like, I just seem to be able to do it for longer,” he said.
A few mushers shared their strategy for self-care and dog care after a rough ride through bare patches and moguls.
“Sometimes food doesn’t sound good, but you got to eat it,” said Iditarod rookie Amanda Otto. “Otherwise, you’re not going to handle sleep deprivation.”
Otto was also trying to rev up her dogs’ appetite during the daylong layover.
“It’s a little warm, so they’re not eating as well as I would have liked. But I just fed out a bunch of bacon and they scarfed that,” she said. “So always down for the treats.”
Riley Dyche said he’s been resting well. “I sleep super-well on checkpoints,” he said. “I’ve gotten … two good five-hour sleep sessions so far and feel pretty with it right now.”
Mushers tried to game the next nearly 700 miles. Otto said she breaks it up in her head to make it more digestible.
“One run at a time,” she said.
Taylor said it felt like the “spiciest trail,” was behind him. Twisty and windy Dalzell Gorge: check. Barren trail into Nikolai: check. He prepared himself for a more monotonous route.
“What I’m dreading is, as we get farther into the race, the dogs are going to lose a little bit of speed,” he said. “And we’re going to be on, you know, the river for quite a few miles and on some flat trail and I think I have to embrace the kind of mindless slog that it’s going to become over the next few 100 miles.”
And after that, it’s on to the coast.
“I just really want to get there,” Taylor said.