First of all, I'm a wreck. No doubt like many of you, I've been glued to my computer screen, clicking non-stop between a dozen browser tabs, constantly looking for a new nugget of information. I'm napping for a few minutes only from time to time, eating badly at weird times and checking my blood pressure regularly. My experience is nothing compared to what Aliy must be going through!
Second, Aliy and the Red Team are in a fantastic position: Hunting down the lead team less than a mile ahead of them. The dogs can smell the leading team's trail, and the veterans know they are "heading to the barn" in Nome. The energy in the team must be palpable, and I'm pretty sure I see it in their faces in the photo below. I feel humbled every time I look at it.
It was barely a month ago that we all watched an eerily similar scenario play out with Hugh Neff chasing Allen during the final legs of the Yukon Quest. It isn't easy being out in front, constantly encouraging your dogs to go as fast as they can. I'm certainly not saying it's easy chasing them down, but there is some merit to the point that dogs are naturally motivated to chase their "prey" rather than extend a lead over some abstract "predators." The mind of the dog has become a critical factor in this race.
Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if Aliy has taken all these factors into consideration and made a conscious decision to have Dallas in a short-lead position. Besides her awesome physical stamina and incredible dog care, Aliy is a smart, experienced and savvy competitor. It may be unconventional to "give up the lead" but it's a reasonable strategy now that we've entered a "match race" phase in the Iditarod.
A match race is a race between two competitors going head-to head, a format that is common in sailboat and horse racing. It's important to keep in mind that the appropriate strategy shifts from "going as fast as you can" to "beating the other team." The concept of "covering" your opponent comes to the fore. You do what he does, maybe just a little better. You take breaks when he does, maybe just a little more efficiently. You have fewer "decisions" to make on the trail, you have less stress of making a trail mistake. You know where you're going and you are looking ahead not back.
If all goes well, you've saved a little energy, your dogs are highly motivated, they've got a fire in the belly and visions of a nice straw bed in mind. The "no man's land" on the approach to Nome is flat and pretty wide open. This race could come down to a pass on Front Street. It could be as close as that.
I'm even more of a wreck now than when I started writing.
Note: For the record, I am not counting out any of the other top competitors. I've got way too much experience of what can happen on the Iditarod to do that. Aaron Burmesiter left Koyuk almost exactly two hours behind Aliy, and John Baker is sure to be hot on his heels. They are not to be ignored, but I think a two hour lead at this point is significant, especially when the two lead teams are obviously running so well.