Three-time champion Lance Mackey pulled into Elim early this afternoon, fed his dogs and mushed on, seeking to expand a comfortable lead of more than two hours in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
For more than a day now, Mackey has posted faster run times than second-place Jeff King, and his dozen dogs have required less rest, allowing the defending champion to gradually pull away. Absent a mistake over the final 120 miles, a fourth consecutive Iditarod should be his.
But behind, a handful of racers too far back to win were looking to improve their positions -- and earnings -- on the homestretch. After all, the battle for first isn't the only one being waged in the 38th Iditarod. And in any race, there are success stories and disappointments.
• Ken Anderson of Fox has finished as high as fourth in the Iditarod, but halfway through this year's race in Cripple he was 19th and struggling to stay in the money. But he's mounted an excellent second half to move steadily up the rankings to fourth. Here's how, according to race blogger Jon Little, writing for Dr. Tim's Pet Food Co.:
"Anderson came up with a new wrinkle this year that's been talked about but rarely attempted. It took nerve and a willingness to camp out in cold, windy conditions late in an exhausting race.
"He blew through Kaltag, stopping only 10 minutes to pick up supplies such as straw, food and fuel, and continued on to camp -- somewhere. I think he probably had the team run all the way to Old Woman cabin, which is about four hours from Unalakleet. The team rested there a good while.
"Then he blew through Unalakleet and went a couple more hours, and camped again, somewhere in the Nulato Hills. Then he blew through Shaktoolik, again stopping only to resupply, and finally pulled over at Koyuk -- in fourth place.
"He wound up camping just twice between Nulato and Koyuk, instead of three times as most dog teams did. Can Anderson hold his very hard-earned advantage?"
• Ramey Smyth of Willow is known as the fastest closer in Iditarod history, having won the final 22-mile Safety-to-Nome dash a record seven times. This year, he's winding it up early. Smyth made the 50-mile run from Shaktoolik to Koyuk in an impressive 7 hours, 6 minutes to land the Willow musher in eighth place. His time to Koyuk was a full 98 minutes faster than the time of Hugh Neff, who's sitting three spots ahead.
"Smyth is a master of closing the deal, and he's the last musher you want chasing you down in the final 150 miles of the Iditarod," writes Little in his race blog. "Smyth is three hours behind Anderson arriving at Koyuk, but his run time of seven hours is significantly faster than the rest. He should move up."
It's been an extraordinary turnaround in a few short months for Smyth. At the Kuskokwim 300, he finished a disappointing seventh, one spot better than he did a month later at the Tustumena 300. Desperate, he entered the Earl Norris Open for sprint mushers in Willow, finishing a distant 12th.
"I just don't have any money," he said at the time. "My dogs have a really bad flu, too, that seems to be dragging on and on."
Consider them recovered.
• Aliy Zirkle of Fairbanks has been the model of consistency, at the bottom of the top 10 or in the low teens most of the race. Topping her best-ever Iditarod finish of 11th in 2005 is well within reach of the former Yukon Quest champion.
• Dallas Seavey of Seward earned the halfway prize by mushing to Cripple before taking his 24-hour layover. That strategy earned him $3,000 and the view of a lot of dog rear ends that passed while he rested. But Seavey, 23, patiently worked his way back to the top 10. Now he's only five hours behind his dad, Mitch. Can he can catch him?
• DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow is exhibiting all the skill that makes her a 14-time top-10 finisher. Jonrowe left the halfway point of Cripple in 26th place, down to just eight dogs. But she has done a superb job coaxing that group to the coast, with a good shot at a top-20 finish, no small accomplishment.
• Dan Kaduce of Chatanika is topping what most consider a strong rookie field in 23rd place out of Unalakleet. While an Iditarod rookie, Kaduce is no greenhorn -- he has four top-10 finishes in the Yukon Quest. Fellow rookie Michael Williams Jr. of Akiak is 27th.
• Wattie McDonald of Scotland "is having a magical race," writes Little. "McDonald, whose entire background consisted of running dry-land cart races with Siberians before he spent the last two winters working with 1984 champion Dean Osmar of Kasilof to get qualified for the Iditarod. Somehow, he maintained an entire 16-dog team all the way to the Yukon River. His run times have been excellent, which isn't a surprise since he's running Osmar's main dogs."
• Sven Haltmann, the young Swiss immigrant, flirted with the top five in the first half of the race and is now struggling to hang onto a top-20 spot. He's down to nine dogs.
• Cim Smyth, Ramey's younger brother, was at the front of the pack during the race's early days. After a fifth-place finish last year, some thought he might contend. But he was down to 22nd, with just nine dogs, out of Unalakleet this morning.
• Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof looked to have recaptured the magic that got him two runner-up finishes, contending for the lead in the race's first few days. He's fallen to 25th out of Unalakleet. In fact, his former handler Kristy Berington is now just 10 spots back.
• Sebastian Schnuelle of Whitehorse, who's planning to move from mushing to sailing, was looking to go out with a bang. That could only mean one thing for last year's Yukon Quest champion and Iditarod runner-up -- an Iditarod title. But Schnuelle was ninth out of Shaktoolik and seemed poised to fall out of the top 10. Perhaps he was one musher who benefited from running the Quest and Iditarod back to back, something he did several times before passing on this year's Quest.