UNALAKLEET -- This late in the Iditarod, the team that doesn't eat is the team that loses. That's why Dallas Seavey, 25, is happy to see his fleet huskies wolfing meals at every stop.
"They're devouring anything you put in front of them," he said.
The youngest of three generations of Seaveys competing in this year's race, Dallas is trying to devour everything in front of him as well.
Seavey arrived second at this subarctic village checkpoint Sunday morning and was second to leave. But by Sunday evening he was in the lead over fellow front-runners Aaron Burmeister, Aliy Zirkle and John Baker.
Seavey reached Shaktoolik, 221 miles from Nome, at 6:31 p.m. and left seven minutes later, 20 minutes before Burmeister pulled into the checkpoint and 43 minutes before Zirkle arrived.
He pledged to press the speed until Nome, confident the dogs can reach an even higher gear if challenged.
Zirkle, who like Seavey is a former Yukon Quest champion, saw this coming. Even when the Two Rivers musher held more than a 2 1/2 hour lead on the Yukon River, the younger Seavey posed the most dangerous threat, she said.
"That's what I thought back in Galena when he stopped (to rest) and started thinking wisely about the future down the trail, and not the here and now," Zirkle said as she fed her team, a good-natured company of mini-marathoners that Zirkle dotes on at checkpoints.
Boondocks, a white-muzzled 3-year-old that ran with Zirkle's husband, Allen Moore, in the recent Yukon Quest, is as light as 33 pounds, Moore said -- half the size of many Iditarod dogs.
Moore joined his wife and kennel partner on Sunday in Unalakleet, where he strolled the checkpoint in the stinging cold, eyeing dog teams and testing Zirkle's dogs.
"Tatfish!" he called to one of the huskies. The dog stood and wagged his tail. A good sign.
"None of them laid down like they're tired," Moore said.
Zirkle will need that stamina to defeat the younger Seavey.
A brash wrestling champion with a cauliflower ear as well as an ear for sound bites, Dallas Seavey is also something of a nerd for the crunchy minutia of sled-dog racing.
In what seemed to be a single breath, he delivered a rapid-fire description of the end-game tactics that thrust him to the front of the race:
"I took my (mandatory eight-hour rest) on Ruby, then went to Galena and took another three or four hours there," Seavey recited. "Then I just went 35 or 45 miles down the river to Nulato. Stopped again for three hours. Then 35 miles to Kaltag and stopped again. ... We were taking extra rest. We were building speed, and that speed pays dividends."
Mushers arrived in Unalakleet, a week into the race, with heavy lids and fuzzy minds.
His face burned red by the wind, Seavey crackled with energy even as he said his body demanded sleep. Zirkle arrived at the checkpoint shivering, cloaked in fatigue and her mittens frozen in the shape of ski-pole handles.
"I'm popping so many caffeine pills in the last five hours it should be illegal," Zirkle said. When she ran out of water to swallow the pills, she ate them with snow.
The musher tugged off her left sock, inspecting discolored toes in the checkpoint hall.
"A little dark," she said, frowning. "It's frostbite from last year."
One of the most unusual things about the 2012 Iditarod is how many legitimate contenders are fighting for the win, said race veteran and Iditarod Insider analyst Bruce Lee.
By now, one or two clear favorites typically emerge in the 975-mile journey from Anchorage to Nome. John Baker of Kotzebue was fully in control of the race by this time in 2011. The year before that, Lance Mackey sped up the coast with four-time champion Jeff King in futile pursuit.
As of Sunday, any number of teams could win, Lee said.
Among them: Burmeister, who walked among his dogs ladling beef fat and tripe while a dancing husky whined at the end of the team.
"I'm coming, Governor, I'm coming," said Burmeister, who as of Sunday night was still running with 14 dogs in harness, the most of any frontrunner.
The musher himself, however, is ailing. A severe head cold robbed him of sleep, he said, and his cold chills soaked his clothes as the racers encountered 40-below temperatures.
TRAINS ON THE TRAIL
And then there were the hallucinations.
"Every time I close my eyes," Burmeister said. "Trains were coming at me. The dogs were a bunch of cars. I was going the wrong way."
Burmeister blamed the visions on his sickness. (Zirkle, equally sleepless, said she was seeing things too, but couldn't remember what.)
Unlike the Interior and Southcentral Alaska mushers, Burmeister will enjoy a kind of homecoming for the rest of Iditarod. The 36-year-old lives in Nenana but has been training in Nome and is the only leader who traveled the final legs of the Iditarod route while competing in the February Paul Johnson Memorial 450.
Burmeister hopes his fully loaded, energetic team can exhaust Seavey's speedier dogs by forcing the young musher to stay on the move.
"That's how you beat a faster team, is take away rest," he said.
BAKER READY TO MOVE
A similar strategy helped John Baker of Kotzebue win last year's race in record time, his big, methodical coastal dogs outpacing sprinter Ramey Smyth of Willow.
This year, Baker, 49, said his team has slowed but that he remained in a position to win Sunday.
"There's very little wasted time and effort with my team," he said.
His dogs weren't suited to the soft trail mushers have seen for much of the race, Baker said.
"That will change now, we'll be on a regular trail."
The defending champion sat eating fry bread and jam in the checkpoint chow hall shortly after Burmeister, Seavey and Zirkle had all hit the trail.
"They BETTER get out of here," Baker said. "Because I'm going to leave pretty quick. You never know if I'll stop once I get started."