TAKOTNA -- Iditarod front-runner Aliy Zirkle walked a pair of huskies to the top of a small hill at this snow-drowned checkpoint Wednesday, looking for signs of soreness in their gait.
Zirkle arrived in Takotna the night before, in first place but carrying a tired husky named "Rambler" in her sled. It was the first hiccup in an otherwise flawless race for the Two Rivers musher. Another Zirkle dog, "Nutmeg," has lost interest in running and would be left at the checkpoint, she said.
At the bottom of the hill a string of dogs began to howl. A good omen.
"That's my team. They're lonely, they want to go," Zirkle said. She howled back.
The 41-year-old former Yukon Quest champion was scheduled to end her mandatory daylong rest here at 1:16 a.m. Thursday. At that point, she would no longer be in the lead, leaving three minutes behind 2004 Iditarod winner Mitch Seavey, according to a chalkboard timeline hanging from the checkpoint wall. Dallas Seavey, Mitch's son, was to depart third, followed by defending champion John Baker.
Seavey leaves first because he left the starting line in Willow later than Zirkle, a quirk of timing that complicates fans' attempts to pinpoint the actual race leader until the mushers get closer to Nome. In short: Zirkle has had what she calls a "carpet ride" for much of the race and is driving a team that finished second with husband Allen Moore in the recent Yukon Quest.
Surrounding her is a pack of former champions and up-and-comers. Here's what two of the top racers had to say about their chances Wednesday.
ALIY ZIRKLE: 'I'VE HAD A FLAWLESS RUN'
Q. When you planned your run, rest schedule for this Iditarod, did you plan it as a championship run?
A. No, I planned it for what I thought these dogs could do. I'm not really sure what everyone else is going to do. So you can't really figure that out. But you can figure out what your dogs can do, and then if everyone can keep up with you.
Actually I added one more hour, in two little half hour increments to their rest.
Q. This was a team within a minute of winning the Quest ...
A. 26 seconds!
Q. Is it also an Iditarod championship-caliber team?
A. It is a championship caliber team. We'll see what the musher can do to make that happen. The physical abilities? Yeah, oh for sure.
Q. What do you plan to do to make that happen beyond just stick to your plans?
A. Read them correctly, you know. It's tacky, but I'm going to do the best I can.
Q. Do these dogs run differently for you than they do for Allen?
A. That's a good question. Probably. But probably not significantly, but probably just little quirks of it. I'm trying to run a little more like Allen does.
When he runs, he's very focused on the segments of those runs. In that he's looking at segment-by-segment. And I always look a little more at the whole picture. So I'm trying to run segment-by-segment. Make my way down the trail in successful segments, as opposed to getting to Nome, blah, blah, blah.
Q. Last year I asked Baker if he felt pressure to win an Iditarod for rural Alaska. Do you feel pressured to become the first woman recent history to win?
A. I don't feel any pressure to win from anyone but myself.
I would love to do it for the women of Alaska, and the world, but I don't feel pressure from them.
Q. Other mushers say they feel like they're running hard yet finding themselves far from the front. What's been different for you?
A. I've just had a flawless run. Up til McGrath, I had no issues. I never took a wrong turn. I never had a dog step in a hole. My sled went well.
So I just never had an issue and I think when you have one or two little issues, they add up. And they'll just put you a little bit behind.
So that was like carrying Rambler in. Like, I feel like I officially had a little bit of an issue. And now, you know, I'm not in first.
Q. Could Aliy Zirkle win this Iditarod?
A. Somebody's got to win, so everybody here is a contender, yeah. I don't mean just here in Takotna. Because I know Martin is out there somewhere, and I have all the respect in the world for him. I just saw Rick Swenson is here. I look down the table and I see Ramey Smyth is over there. So there's a lot of people that are capable of winning the race.
Q. Are you listening to music on the dog sled this year?
A. I did listen to music the other day coming into Nikolai. Q. What do you like?
A. I enjoy rock. Some country. Older country. But I enjoy rock and roll from the '80s and late '70s. I love dancing and I dance a lot on the sled when listening to music. And I probably use up a lot of energy.
Q. How much can you dance on a dog sled?
A. Oh, you'd be surprised. And I also, I was looking around to make sure nobody could hear me singing. Screaming at the top of my lungs, and the dogs are looking at me.
Q. Are front-runners pushing the pace more than usual?
A. For the conditions that we've had, it may have been. But it's almost -- to the minute -- the same schedule that I ran last year. So I'm just doing what I did before. ... It was definitely a better trail last year, so we're pushing the pace in that regard. So we're similar to the same race run/rest schedule. So at this point, it was real conservative getting to here. And at this point last year was when we started stretching out the runs.
Q. Given the amount of fresh snow on the trail, do your dogs still have as much fuel in the tank as last year?
A. Yes I would say so. They've used energy there. But then, they've had warm temperatures. So they haven't used a lot of energy trying to keep warm or anything like that.