Brent Sass maintains Iditarod lead up Bering Sea coast as Dallas Seavey tries to close gap

A man in a dark parka and a headlamp
Dallas Seavey after arriving at the Unalakleet checkpoint on Sunday. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

UNALAKLEET — Mushers Brent Sass and Dallas Seavey arrived at the checkpoint here overnight Saturday and into Sunday morning, setting up a showdown between the two top teams as they charge toward Nome. 

Sass and his 12-dog team wearing jackets pulled in first at 11:32 p.m. to cheers, pausing just six minutes.

Brass won one ounce of gold nuggets for his first-place arrival.

During the brief stop, Sass doubled down on his commitment not to get sucked into the competition from other teams. He’s acknowledged throughout this year’s race that he’s made that mistake in the past, and now bears a forearm tattoo that says, “Run your own race.”

A tattoo says: Run Your Own Race
At the Cripple checkpoint, Brent Sass shows a tattooed mantra on his forearm to remind him not to get pulled into his competitors’ tactics. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

“Dogs are looking good and I feel good about it, and we’re gonna just keep racing our race,” he said to a crowd of about a dozen cheering spectators, as he prepared to pull his snow hook from the ice-covered dog yard.

Sass and his 12 dogs raced on toward the barren coastline at 11:38 p.m., with just 250 miles to the finish.

Sass has held the lead at all checkpoints since the halfway point in Cripple, where both he and Seavey took their 24-hour breaks. 

Seavey is racing for a record-setting sixth Iditarod win. Sass is racing for his first. Sass placed third in last year’s Iditarod and fourth in 2020. 

Just under two hours after Sass dashed out of Unalakleet late Saturday, in came Seavey and his 10 dogs.

He stopped to rest at 1:22 a.m. Sunday.

In the dog yard, in the dark early morning, Seavey was confident and calculated after feeding his dogs. But he acknowledged that he faced challenges during this year’s race. His dogs got sick during the first half, and he had to drop several of his leaders due to injuries.

“Murphy’s law is like a lost little puppy following me around,” he said. “It’s a little annoying. Other than that we’re having fun.”

A man in black wearing a headlamp feeds his dogs
Dallas Seavey feeds his dogs on Sunday morning after arriving in Unalakleet. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

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Seavey has led out of the Unalakleet checkpoint during just one of his victories, in 2015. (Last year, the teams went on a loop course because of COVID-19 and did not go to the community.) 

Sass has led into Unalakleet before, but he’s never led out.

Compared to Seavey, Sass’ team has generally run at slower speeds and cut on some rest, something he’s said he trains his dogs for. 

He lost about 20 minutes of his lead to Seavey during the run over the Nulato Hills to the Bering Sea coast, resting at the trailside Old Woman cabin at the top of the pass outside of the checkpoint. 

Seavey, meanwhile, said he’s added an hour of rest to his stops in the race’s first half to help his dogs recover from a stomach bug. The illness made them less voracious than usual, and gave them diarrhea. He’s also been letting some of them rest in his tow sled, but ended up dropping some of those dogs anyway after they got injured. 

That’s left him with some up-and-comers in lead — Pecos and Titan — whom he jokingly referred to as “Dumb and Dumber.” He said Pecos, an Iditarod veteran from last year, has stepped up in maturity this year, but still struggles to find the trail on the icy Unalakleet River.

“He’s just looking at the birds in the sky and just runs right off the end of the trail,” said Seavey. “I’m like, ‘Dude, pay attention!”

RELATED: Alaska musher Dallas Seavey on brink of becoming Iditarod’s best ever

A dog team running on the snow at night
Dallas Seavey’s team arrives in Unalakleet around 1:20 a.m. on Sunday. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Seavey didn’t elaborate exactly on his race strategy going forward, but said he was playing to his team’s strengths to set him up for the finish. He said it’s easy to get sucked into playing catch up with other teams — slogging through a 100-mile run, for example — only to wear out the dogs.

“White Mountain is not the finish, the finish is the finish,” he said, referring to the checkpoint 77 miles from Nome where teams are required to rest for eight hours. 

Seavey said he’s been getting a few scattered tidbits on Sass’s whereabouts throughout the race, watching for straw — a sign of resting dogs ahead of him — and talking to snowmachiners traveling the trail.

After 3 hours and 16 minutes on pause, Seavey raced out after Sass at 5:38 a.m. 

The next closest team, led by Aaron Burmeister, pulled into Unalakleet at 10:04 a.m.

A dog team outside
Aaron Burmeister and his nine dogs race into Unalakleet in third place at 10:04 a.m. Sunday. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

“I gave up on chasing those guys,” he said about Sass and Seavey. “They’re on record pace but when you push that hard on these kinds of conditions with what we’ve gone through on this race, engines start blowing gaskets, so if they can hold it together, more power to them.”

By about 3:30 p.m., Sass was resting around race mile 787 and Seavey was resting around mile 771, according to the race tracker.

Burmeister and Richie Diehl were on the trail behind them. Jessie Holmes, Dan Kaduce and Mille Porsild were stopped in Unalakleet, with the rest of the teams stretched from there to as far back as race mile 460, on their way to Ruby.

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Lex Treinen covers culture, homelessness, politics and corrections for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at ltreinen@alaskapublic.org.