Bethel musher Pete Kaiser has left White Mountain, 77 miles from the Iditarod’s finish line in Nome.
He left the checkpoint at 4:05 p.m. Tuesday with eight dogs after completing his mandatory eight-hour layover. Defending champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom of Norway left at 4:47 p.m. with eight dogs.
Kaiser had reached White Mountain at 8:05 a.m., and Leifseth Ulsom pulled in at 8:46 a.m.
As the first to White Mountain, Kaiser won a $2,500 check and a print by Anchorage artist Marianne Wieland, race officials said.
In 2018, Leifseth Ulsom pulled into Nome at 3 a.m. March 14 as the race winner after taking 11 hours, 3 minutes to run from White Mountain to Nome (plus a 5-minute stop in the Safety checkpoint). The same run took Kaiser 10 hours, 30 minutes, with a 1-minute stop in Safety.
If they match last year’s pace, a race winner could emerge as early as 2:30 a.m. Wednesday. If they match the fastest pace from last year on that stretch of trail, the first musher could cross the finish line closer to midnight. That’s a less likely scenario, with current snowy weather conditions, but who knows: With victory at stake and the top two racers so close, they could spur each other on to a speedy finish.
Fairbanks musher Jessie Royer is behind them at third in the standings. She left the previous checkpoint, 46 miles away in Elim, at 4:46 a.m. Tuesday with 11 dogs and reached White Mountain at 12:40 p.m.
Kaiser had rested in Elim for 2 hours and 44 minutes. Leifseth Ulsom, who arrived 50 minutes after him, took a shorter rest to narrow the gap.
“It was tough but, I mean, I knew my team needed a break and, you know, (I was) trying to figure out what was the least amount I could give them and safely get over here," Kaiser told the Iditarod Insider later in White Mountain.
“It was kind of funny, there was some awkward silence (at the Elim checkpoint) for a while, but (Leifseth Ulsom) finally said he was gonna go lay down," Kaiser told the Insider.
He asked if Leifseth Ulsom planned to take a longer break or follow him out of the checkpoint. Leifseth Ulsom said he’d follow him out.
“ ‘Well, I’m gonna go boot up now so you might as well not take a nap,’ ” Kaiser said he told Leifseth Ulsom. “I didn’t want to be that guy.”
Leifseth Ulsom later told the Insider with a smile: “Just when I was like, ‘OK, I’m gonna go lay down,’ he’s like, ‘Well, I think I’m gonna head out.' So that was good."
“I would’ve loved to give (the dogs) a bigger break, but I didn’t want to allow him to get a bigger break too,” Kaiser told the Insider. “It’s a good, friendly competition.”
Kaiser left Elim just five minutes ahead of Leifseth Ulsom, and he grew that lead to 41 minutes by the time they reached White Mountain. They left White Mountain 42 minutes apart.
Now, the big question is whether Kaiser will be able to keep his speed advantage all the way to Nome.
Farther back in the race, race rookie Niklas Wikstrand of Norway scratched in Kaltag at 12:42 a.m. Tuesday “in the best interest of his race team,” according to Iditarod officials. He was racing with 12 dogs at the time. Montana musher Brett Bruggeman scratched in Shaktoolik a few hours later at 7:20 a.m. with 11 dogs. Officials gave the same reason for his decision.
About two hours later, Skagway musher Ryan Redington scratched in Shaktoolik with nine dogs “due to the well-being of his race team.”
They are the eighth, ninth and 10th mushers, respectively, to scratch in this year’s race, leaving 42 mushers on the trail.