Petit’s 2019 Iditarod
Early Excitement and Deep Disappointment
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
Nicolas Petit’s beginning and middle of the 2019 Iditarod was a fantastic run that looked like it was shaping up into a very strong finish. Then Team Petit’s race fell apart 14 miles out of Shaktoolik, losing more than just the lead after the dogs would not run.
Just to get to the starting chute for the Iditarod takes a lot of work. Besides training his team and deciding which dogs will do best on this year’s Iditarod Trail, there are myriad tasks the Girdwood based musher must do to prepare weeks in advance before the race begins.
Food bags for dogs and musher alike must be prepared for each checkpoint and then dropped off and shipped out. There are also veterinarian checks for the dogs and pre-race meetings to attend.
The Musher’s Banquet at the Dena’ina Center is the Iditarod’s official beginning, and it is where mushers mingle with each other and supporters while waiting for the bib number draw to commence. This year, Petit drew #20 to leave the starting chute. Team Petit’s Lead Handler, Tyler Schmitt said Petit was hoping to draw a number somewhere in the middle.
The ceremonial start is an easy going affair where fans and supporters can greet mushers and take photos before the staging area is closed to the public. Team Petit was parked by 4th Ave. and H St. in Anchorage, getting gear, dogs and the musher ready with the assistance of handlers and helpers. Keeping track of time is important to make sure the dog team, sled and Petit are prepared to go after the five-minute warning is given.
Because it is a ceremonial start, Petit’s sled bag was carrying an ‘IditaRider,’ someone who had a winning bid in a fundraising auction to ride with a musher. With a tag sled attached by rope, Schmitt was riding behind Petit as they proceed down a snow-covered 4th Ave. surrounded by the media, fans and sightseers.
As his countdown commenced, Petit launched out of the starting chute to begin the untimed 11-mile run to Campbell Airstrip. Along the designated stops of the trail, people wished Petit the best, and fans behind the fencing cheered him and his 14 pack of dogs on, including one notable well-wisher, Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
The next afternoon was the restart in Willow, where light snow was falling and the sun was slightly shining through clouds. Team Petit was one of the last to arrive in the staging area, which is fenced off from the public to let mushers prepare for departure. After the truck and trailer were parked at designated spot #20, unloading and set up began. Dog blankets, some more colorful than others, were laid out on the snow before the dogs were brought out of their kennels.
During this time, people from the mushing world came for a quick chat with Petit and wished him luck. The media also came by for brief interviews to inquire about his team’s approach coming into the race. The highlight was when Iditarod legend Lance Mackey (bib #44) dropped by for a visit. Mackey asked Petit two questions, “After this Iditarod, can I have your old truck, and can you save me some of that dinner?” Mackey was referring to prizes mushers win for being the first into different checkpoints. Iditarod winners receive a new truck, and the first musher into Anvik receives a five-course dinner.
Then Petit showed his newly modified sled to Mackey. On the left side there is a dog box entry so Petit can rotate and rest up to three dogs on the trail. Mackey jumped on the sled runners, grabbed the handle bar and gave the sled a hearty shake for a couple of seconds. He liked what he saw and felt in the way Petit’s sled responded. Then the mushers quietly spoke together.
After Mackey left, Schmitt kept reminding Petit of the time every few minutes as he loaded his sled with gear. During this process, Petit also tends to his dogs to give them affection or to check on something. His team is known for how calm and quiet they are during the lengthy set up until they are finally set to the gangline. Then they get excited and want to hit the trail.
A race official gives Petit the five-minute warning, so he completes some final tasks and prepares the dog team on the gangline. Then they are ready to go. Each dog has either one of Petit’s handlers or an Iditarod volunteer handler to help lead it into the starting chute. After an official gives Petit the signal, he tells his escorted team to move forward to the first stop in the line of mushers waiting to leave every two minutes.
As the line proceeds, friends approach Petit for a quick goodbye and a good luck wish to encourage the thrill of an anticipated special year for him.
Chatting lightheartedly with Schmitt before the start signal, fans behind the fencing cheered Petit on with random outbursts of support. As he pulled into his chute, Iditarod handlers clamped down on his sled and dug in, waiting to release him. Team Petit did not need such a lockdown, but the procedure is customary because it is sometimes required with less disciplined teams. Recently retired Iditarod musher DeeDee Jonrowe greeted Petit at the starting chute with a hug.
With Schmitt standing on the sled’s runners and brakes, Petit’s two-minute countdown to departure proceeded. He started at the front of the gangline, checking each dog while giving some affection and encouragement as he worked his way back to his sled’s runners.
3..2..1.. The sled handlers quickly detached, and Team Petit was off to Nome and 998 miles of trail. Petit was second into the second checkpoint of Skwentna, 83 miles into the race. Then they were first into the checkpoints of Finger Lake, Rainy Pass, Rohn, Nikolai and McGrath.
For being the first team into McGrath, Petit received the inaugural Alaska Air Transit Spirit of Iditarod Award. According to an Iditarod press release, Petit received a pair of beaver mitts made by McGrath’s Loretta Maillelle as well as a musher hat made by Rosalie Egrass.” The release said Petit would be re-presented the prizes at the awards banquet in Nome on Mar. 17.
Petit was the first musher into Takotna and Ophir, where he took his 24-hour rest and differential time, the difference between Petit’s starting bib #20 and the last musher’s starting bib #53, which is 64 minutes. After arriving first in Iditarod, Petit was second into Shageluk.
Finishing first in Anvik had to be a highlight for Petit. For the third straight year, he won The Lakefront Anchorage First Musher to the Yukon Award. He received an “After Dinner Mint” of $3,500 in one-dollar bills along with a bottle of Dom Pérignon. He also had a five-course meal prepared by Lakefront’s Executive Chef Robert Sidro.
- Bison chili with cheddar cheese and a parmesan crostini
- Roasted beets, caramelized macadamia nuts and goat cheese on artisan lettuce with champagne vinaigrette
- Seared jumbo scallops with saffron sauce and blueberry chutney
- Seared tenderloin with whiskey sauce paired with jumbo Alaska spotted shrimp in a champagne sauce
- A pan-fried, cinnamon banana with vanilla ice cream and brandy caramel sauce.
After 4:35 of rest and digestion in the checkpoint, Petit was the first to Grayling, 18 miles up the trail. He took his mandatory eight-hour rest in this checkpoint. He left 1:03 after then race leader Joar Leifseth Ulsom, who had also completed his mandatory rests. Petit pulled into Grayling 42 minutes after Ulsom, staying only eight minutes before heading up the Yukon River to Kaltag. He chose to rest for a few hours 18 miles up the trail, which left him 42 miles to Kaltag. After this trio of mushers passed Petit at the end of a rest, his fresh team responded.
Petit pulled into Kaltag second, three minutes after Peter Kaiser, who chose to take his eight-hour rest. Jessie Royer reached the checkpoint 2:27 after Petit, who rested for 4:58 and was back on the trail ahead of the trio of mushers in pursuit.
Team Petit pulled into Unalakleet first to win the inaugural Ryan Air Gold Coast Award. According to the Iditarod’s press release, the award consists of $1,500 in gold nuggets from the Bering Straits region, as well as a carved ivory dog sled team made by Leonard Savage of Holy Cross.
Petit rested for 5:02 in Unalakleet before setting out for Shaktoolik. The trio of Kaiser, Ulsom and Royer camped at the same spot in the middle of the run between Kaltag and Unalakleet, which they chose to run through in two-minute intervals to head to Shaktoolik.
Petit was in and out of Shaktoolik in eight minutes, but trouble set in 14 miles up the trail. Petit was forced to rest on sea ice at mile 791 after the team refused to run. He eventually walked the team to a shelter cabin at mile 793. Even as the trio of mushers passed by, Petit’s dogs did not want to run.
At press time, Team Petit was heading back to Shaktoolik, signaling an inevitable scratch. Though Petit came away with some impressive rewards this race, the scratch and what led to it are what he will remember most.
Editor’s Note: This year is the fifth consecutive year I have been working with Team Petit.