Iditarod Mushers Test Strategies With 24-Hour Rests

Mar 6, 2019

Musher Aliy Zirkle at the Rainy Pass Lodge checkpoint on the Iditarod trail on March 4, 2019.
Credit Zachariah Hughes / APRN

The Iditarod is reaching its halfway point, and that means some rugged country and strategy.

This is a peculiar time in the Iditarod. With most of the front runners taking their mandatory 24-hour rest, a back of the pack team can suddenly move forward in the standings, and for a brief period, pass by mushers they have not seen since the beginning of the race.

That’s what the two twins from Knik did this afternoon. Anna and Kristy Berington followed rookie musher Ed Hopkins as he came into Takotna. He decided to stay, so his is the last name recorded on the list. But because the Berington twins, who arrived about 15 minutes behind him, decided to mush on down the trail instead of stopping, their names move above the list of experienced mushers taking their 24-hour breaks in Takotna. Among them are last year’s champion, Joar Leifseth Ulsom, who arrived a lot earlier, and also two Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta mushers: Bethel’s Peter Kaiser and Aniak’s Richie Diehl.

The twins are headed to Ophir, which is only 23 miles away. There they will find, bedded down for their 24s, speedy Nicholas Petit and his team, along with those of Jessie Holmes, Aaron Burmeister, and former champion Martin Buser, who arrived earlier this afternoon.

Out in front of them all is Aliy Zirkle. The Two Rivers musher is going as fast as she can to Iditarod, which is a gamble. If she has good trail conditions and makes great time, it might just work out, especially if the weather deteriorates later, making the trail soft or otherwise slowing the teams coming off their rests. That combination would result in a smaller lead for her fresher, and hopefully faster, team to overcome. But it is equally possible that she may be stuck doing a 24 and watching others pass her by, broadening the already large lead they enjoyed before they began their own 24-hour breaks.

Bethel’s three rookies are not at the table in this high-stakes game. Jessica Klejka is doing her 24 in McGrath. Niklas Wikstrand left Nikolai this morning and has spent most of the day running to McGrath, and Victoria Hardwick is bringing up the rear, mushing to Nikolai and enjoying the Alaska Range, just like she said she would.