How to discover who really leads the Iditarod. Andre Jute does the math.

  • The Iditarod Trail Committee publishes race standings, but until the mushers check in at White Mountain, those are just the order on the trail. The only true comparison is between mushers who have taken the 24 hour mandatory break and have both either taken or not taken the mandatory 8 hour break.

  • The real leader can be, and usually is, someone else.

  • Aliy Zirkle. Photo by Mike Criss.
  • If you want to know who truly leads the Iditarod, you must allow for three factors:

Relative position on the trail. One musher is ahead of another musher by so many minutes at a checkpoint, and that’s official, or unofficially on the trail a distance that can be measured by GPS responder positions and converted to a time differential by reference to known average speed.

Mandatory stops. There are three mandatory long stops to rest the dogs, in addition to rest and feeding stops the musher makes at his/her discretion. The 24 hour stop can be taken anywhere except White Mountain and Nome, because none of the mandatory stops can be combined and at Nome the race ends. Practically, almost everyone takes the 24 hour stop before descending the Kaltag Portage to the Bering Sea coast. The first of the mandatory 8 hour stops must be taken on the Yukon (including Shageluk). The second mandatory 8 hour stop must be taken at White Mountain, from where it is a sprint to Nome.

Relative order at the start. Mushers start the race at two minute intervals. These differentials are adjusted at the 24 hour mandatory stop. So a musher who starts ten places ahead of another musher and is now three places and five minutes ahead leaving a checkpoint is in fact 20-5 = 15 minutes behind. After both have taken the Yukon 8 hours and the 24 hours, they will be even-steven, and on-the trail differentials will be true differentials. The checking-in order at White Mountain is also a true differential.

Example. Even a little way into the race, getting an answer isn’t that simple. Take this incident of mushers leaving a checkpoint, Musher A one hour before Musher B. Musher A carries bib number 32 and has served his Yukon 8 hours but not his 24 hours mandatory break to rest the dogs. Musher B carries bib number 2 (there is no No 1 which is reserved for the shade of Leonhard Seppala) has served her 24 hours but not her 8 hours on the Yukon.

Question: How far is Musher B, 1 hour behind on the trail, actually in front of Musher A in real standings?

Answer: Musher B is clearly ahead by the difference between their mandatory breaks still to be taken, 24 – 8 = 16 hours, less the hour Musher A is ahead out of the checkpoint, so 15 hours, with the starting differential still to be calculated. (Here’s where most people give up. Don’t. It gets easier.) Note that her time has been adjusted for starting differential to every musher in the race, including his, all the way to the back because, while we speak loosely of “24 hours”, in fact her break was 26h20m. When he takes his 24 hour break, two minutes for his advantage to each of the 40 mushers behind him will be added on, 1h20m altogether, so the total Musher B will be ahead after she finishes her 8 hour Yukon break and Musher A finishes his 24 hour break  is 24 – 8 -1 + 1h20m  = 16h20.

  • From the IDITAROD RULES:

  • “Rule 13 — Mandatory Stops: A musher must personally sign in and out to start and complete all mandatory stops.

“Twenty Four-Hour Stop: A musher must take one mandatory twenty-four (24) hour stop during the race. The twenty-four (24) hour stop may be taken at the musher’s option at a time most beneficial to the dogs. The starting differential will be adjusted during each team’s twenty-four (24) hour stop. It is the musher’s responsibility to remain for the entire twenty-four (24) hour period plus starting differential. The ITC will give each musher the required time information prior to leaving the starting line.

“Eight Hour Mandatory Stops: In addition to the mandatory twenty-four (24) hour stop, a musher must take one eight (8) hour stop on the Yukon River, including Shageluk in odd numbered years, and one eight (8) hour stop at White Mountain.

“None of the mandatory stops may be combined.”

IDITAROD a novel of The Greatest Race on Earth by Andre Jute
IDITAROD a novel of The Greatest Race on Earth by Andre Jute

Andre Jute is the author of Iditarod a Novel of the Greatest Race on Earth, available in paperback and ebook. Get it at:

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