Well-rested teams of defending champion Lance Mackey, four-time winner Jeff King and the Norwegian Express team of Kjetil Backen left Takotna before dawn on Thursday with a 24-hour rest behind them, determined to run down teams that had pushed farther up the trail as the 36th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race turned strategic.
Five-time champion Rick Swenson, who took his layover in McGrath, was expected to join them on the trail by 6 a.m.
Up ahead, a pack of 13 mushers that had yet to take their layovers left Ophir on a 60-mile run to Cripple, the halfway point in the 1,100-mile northern route of the trail to Nome. A halfway prize worth $3,000 awaited them there.
That group was led by Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof, the two-time runner-up.
Gebhardt was the first musher out of the tiny town 609 miles from the finish line in Nome, leaving at 12:52 p.m. Wednesday, hours before the next musher — Hugh Neff of Skagway — departed at 4:18 p.m.
Others out of Ophir included four-time champion Martin Buser of Big Lake, 2004 winner Mitch Seavey of Seward and Ken Anderson, Mackey's Fairbanks neighbor who finished minutes behind Mackey in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.
Mackey last year became the first ever to record back-to-back wins in the Quest and the Iditarod. After emerging from a nap, he said he had planned to go farther but his dogs were dragging and not eating. He had to drop Hobo, a leader who was badly injured in an ongoing rivalry with Larry, another leader. Some of his dogs have been coughing and one female is in heat, he said.
But the biggest factor affecting his dogs were temperatures that have reached into the 40s, far from the subzero weather his dogs love. Mackey said his team was thriving during the Yukon Quest, when temperatures plunged as low as 60 degrees below zero.
"The warm weather just saps them," he said, rubbing his eyes as he sat in the Takotna community center. "I'm pretty good about reading my dogs and they were telling me to stop."
It took him almost three hours to run the 18-mile stretch from the previous checkpoint at McGrath to Takotna because he kept stopping to switch his leaders. But the long rest is already paying off: they're eating well again.
"I know I just need to get the team back to normal," Mackey said before heading out to take another long nap himself.
Other mushers also chose to take their 24 hours in Takotna, considered by many to be one of the friendliest villages along the trail.
The community of 50 puts on a huge welcome, treating mushers to a bounty of food, including steak, baked potatoes and homemade pies. The school closes for the week so children can haul water for the mushers, lay out straw for the teams and serve as official pooper scoopers. The women cook and men serve as dog-handlers and snowmobile drivers.
"What you do for one musher, you've got do for all," said Jan Newton, who has been on kitchen duty since 1974 and last week became the latest inductee in the Anchorage Daily News Iditarod Hall of Fame. "I enjoy doing it. With cabin fever and all, it's nice to see a lot of different faces."
Taking advantage of the plentiful burgers and fries were Sebastian Schnuelle of Whitehorse, Yukon, and Warren Palfrey of Yellowknife, Northwest Territory.
The warm weather was no problem for them or their dogs, the mushers said. They have trained in similar conditions.
In fact, Schnuelle still had all 16 of his dogs, which have short coats. He said he also is running mostly at night, when temperatures drop.
"That's enough to make a difference," he said. "I like this weather and I think the dogs like it."