It’s Brent Sass’ Iditarod to lose as Dallas Seavey chases him down the coast

UPDATE, Monday 11:30 a.m.:

Eureka musher Brent Sass continued to lead the Iditarod Trail sled dog race on Monday along the Norton Sound coast, arriving at the White Mountain checkpoint at 11:05 a.m. with 12 dogs in harnesses – and a lead of 20 miles over defending champion Dallas Seavey.

At White Mountain, mushers must rest for eight hours before completing the final 77-mile run to Nome. Asked by Iditarod Insider Asked if he had allowed himself to start thinking about the finish line on Sunday night, Sass said: “No way, not quite yet.”

“We’re not there yet,” Sass said when he stopped in Koyuk. “It was a good race, but he’s still there.” Sass said he hasn’t seen another musher since Cripple, 379 miles from Koyuk.

The last checkpoint the race chiefs visited on Monday was Elim. Sass spent five minutes there, arriving at 5:12 a.m. Seavey arrived more than two hours later at 7:32 a.m. and left after seven minutes, according to the Iditarod Ranking.

Original story:

Eureka musher Brent Sass holds a small but persistent lead in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race as he and Dallas Seavey of Talkeetna travel north along the sea ice on the Norton Sound coast.

On Sunday evening, Sass was nearly 20 miles further down the track than Seavey as the two alternated between runs and rests moving from Shaktoolik to Koyuk, and beyond. This is one of the least predictable areas of the Thousand Mile Route, with mushers often encountered by strong winds that slow them down and obscure the trail.

Sure enough, Sass and Seavey had headwinds blowing from the north for much of Sunday.

By all indications, Seavey is still aiming to win this year and doesn’t plan to give Sass an inch as he chases him to the finish line in Nome.

“You see people trying hard and it puts them forward, but ahead at the wrong time,” Seavey told Unalakleet after laying his team in straw. “There’s only one place where you really have to be up front.”

Seavey has mastered the art of ascending the temperamental coast of Norton Sound and has beaten top competitors in recent years to arrive first in Nome (including his father, Mitch). Seavey’s brother Danny, an Iditarod veteran and keen observer of the race, expects his brother to aim to jump ahead somewhere along Golovin Bay on the way to Elim at White Mountain . He wrote on Facebookhowever, that so far Sass hasn’t slowed down enough for that to happen.

Bruce Lee, analyst at Iditarod Insider observed Saturday that Seavey might have a few small advantages: Running behind the leader gives him a bit more information along the trail, like leftover food indicating Sass’ feeding breaks or piles of straw indicating rests.

According to Alaska state media, Seavey told reporters during his break in Unalakleet that he veered slightly off the trail through Kaltag Portage to look for signs that Sass had rested at Old Woman Cabin — which he had. Lee, an Iditarod veteran himself, thinks Seavey’s dogs look a bit stronger than Sass’ team coming through checkpoints, albeit slightly.

All that to say that, according to most track watchers, barring any unexpected variables or errors, the race is on the line for Sass at this point.

No one in the chasing pack looks likely to jump ahead from behind and claim victory, although it will be fierce competition for third place.

Nome/Nenana musher Aaron Burmeister, who arrived at Unalakleet on Sunday morning, admitted he was unlikely to win unless something dramatic happened up front.

“There’s nothing that’s going to slow them down. These guys are going to fight up there, and I’ll be right behind them picking up the pieces if something goes wrong, but I’m just enjoying this ride with the dogs,” he said Sunday.

[Aaron Burmeister, veteran musher at the top of his game, plans to step back from Iditarod racing after this year]

Jumping from place to place and crossing the coast is more than a matter of vanity: every position a musher can earn in the top 20 can mean thousands more dollars in prizes. This year’s top 20 is filled with veteran riders and former champions, all of whom have spent the last 700 kilometers or so preparing for this final leg of the course.

One of the mushers poised to crack the top 20 is Norway’s Hanna Lyrek, 22, currently the top rookie in this year’s race. Alaska Public Media wrote a profile of Lyrek, who lived the first five years of her life in Alaska before her family moved overseas.

She has an impressive resume for such a young musher. This includes winning Europe’s first distance sled dog race at 19 and earning a place in the elite team QRILL (alongside Seavey and fellow Norwegians Joar Leifseth Ulsom and Thomas Waerner – all three being former Iditarod champions).

At the current rate, a winner is likely to reach Nome late Monday evening or early Tuesday morning.

Daily News multimedia reporter Marc Lester contributed reporting for Unalakleet.

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