Jeff King first into McGrath

4 OUT FRONT: Schnuelle, Baker and Seavey are close behind him.

March 9, 2010 

Not content to rest for long, four top mushers raced through McGrath Tuesday night and headed for Takotna.

Four-time champion Jeff King led the four-musher breakout out of Nikolai and again out of McGrath, leaving the checkpoint at 8:32 p.m., three minutes after checking in.

Last year’s runner-up Sebastian Schnuelle of Whitehorse, Kuskokwim 300 winner John Baker of Kotzebue and 2004 champion Mitch Seavey of Sterling were about an hour behind. They were also in and out of McGrath in less than five minutes.

In recent years, the winner of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has come from among the frontrunners into Nikolai, the village at the far end of the Farewell Burn.

This year, the group was more a herd than a pack. By 3:06 p.m. Tuesday, 21 mushers were parked in Nikolai. Most had made the 80-mile run from Rohn in under 11 hours. Many had 15 or 16 dogs in harness. Most were names you'd expect among the early frontrunners.

Last year's runner-up Sebastian Schnulle of Whitehorse was the first to reach the quiet town of about 100 residents, checking in at 9:47 a.m.

Thirty-seven minutes behind him was Seavey, a perennial front-runner. Another 28 minutes behind Seavey was King.

But King picked up speed from Nikolai to McGrath, and by the time he left McGrath, he was ahead of Baker by 51 minutes.

Many top teams made the drive across the Burn without a extensive break, with the fastest taking less than nine hours. Nobody traveled faster than five-time champion Rick Swenson, who may still be a force to be reckoned with at age 57. Swenson flew across the Burn in 8 hours, 18 minutes -- faster than Mackey, faster than King, fast than Baker. That left him in 17th place, but with a better-rested team of 16 speedsters than some other mushers.

If there was any surprise among the leaders, perhaps it's Sven Haltmann, the seventh musher to Nikolai.

Haltmann, 32, may be something of a younger version of Martin Buser. He came to Alaska from Switzerland nine years ago and spent two years working as a handler for Buser before branching out on his own.

Half his kennel of 40 dogs is with him on the Iditarod, where he's aiming to improve his 22nd place finish from a year ago behind such lead dogs as Dolmar, Cash and Pistol. So far so good -- Haltmann hasn't dropped a single dog yet.

"All of them are great leaders," said Patrick Haltmann, a 22-year-old cousin who's followed the musher to Alaska and is helping run the kennel. "We don't train one or two lead dogs.

"That's a pretty good team he has, maybe the best he's ever had. I hope he can finish in the top 10. There's a good chance."

Haltmann the racer grew up in the mountainous Swiss village of Appenzell. Surrounded by farm animals as a teenager, he enjoyed working with them, particularly dogs.

"I feel very blessed," he said in his biography on the Iditarod Web site.

Suzanne Schmidt, another Swiss immigrant who lives near the Busers in Big Lake, is rooting for her friend Haltmann, too.

"He's such an outgoing, friendly, positive person," she said. "He's a very very hard work, and he really wants it so badly."

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