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UNALAKLEET - Montana's Doug Swingley, who holds the fastest Iditarod time in history, is threatening to make this year's race the most lopsided.
Swingley pulled into Unalakleet, 269 miles from Nome, at 10:08 a.m. Sunday and was immediately surrounded by a throng of residents and television cameras. Second-place Martin Buser of Big Lake didn't arrive until 8:39 p.m.
By then, Swingley had already finished an 81/2-hour rest and was on his way to Shaktoolik, the next checkpoint 40 miles down the trail. He left at 6:49 p.m.
If Swingley's margin continues to grow, he could threaten Carl Huntington's 1974 record for the biggest margin of victory over the runner-up. Huntington won by 20 hours, 18 minutes over Warner Vent.
None of that was on Swingley's mind when he mushed 13 dogs into town, escorted by a half-dozen snowmachines and a camera crew flying overhead in a helicopter.
"I made it," he said, looking tired as he walked down his team, unclipping each dog's tow lines. His eyes were bleary, and his steps were slow.
"I think I took about 700 catnaps in the last 100 miles," he said. "That was a long ways.
"The trail just beats on you," he said. "I've been sleeping too much on my sled. I think I need a long break."
Two years ago, Swingley arrived in Unalakleet at almost exactly the same time but trailed eventual champion Martin Buser by two hours - a margin Buser made up over the last stretch of trail. This year, Swingley is alone.
The 90-mile run between Kaltag, the last checkpoint on the Yukon River, and Unalakleet, the first checkpoint on Norton Sound, is the longest in the 1,100-mile marathon from Anchorage to Nome.
Once here, Swingley had plenty of time to rest and, if he chose, count the $2,500 in gold nuggets he won for being the first Iditarod musher to the Norton Sound coast.
Swingley made the run from Kaltag in just over 10 hours. In comparison, local teams running fresh dogs were making the run in 13 hours, said Joe Runyan, the 1989 Iditarod winner who is covering this year's race.
Getting parked at the checkpoint may have been the toughest part. Swingley's lead dog, Elmer, stopped the team on the river by Unalakleet Lodge, where the checkpoint has been in past years. This year, the checkpoint was moved near the village store, farther down the river.
"Elmer's been here one too many times," Swingley said, smiling. "He said, 'No that's the out route, that's to Shaktoolik. We're not going that way.' "
Eventually, Swingley persuaded Elmer and began his long rest in the biggest town mushers encounter between Wasilla and Nome on the Iditarod Trail.
After making his dogs comfortable, Swingley headed to the Unalakleet Lodge, where he dined on steak and salad while surrounded by a phalanx of cameras capturing every bite.
Snow and low clouds made it impossible for planes to get back down the trail to Kaltag, so media crews were left to cover only Swingley.
Behind Buser, five-time winner Rick Swenson of Two Rivers left Kaltag at 4:29 p.m. after a five-hour rest.
The lead chase pack was reduced by one on Saturday when DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow scratched because she couldn't get her dogs to run.
"I really feel bad for DeeDee," Swingley said in Unalakleet. "I've never been in that position. But I know she's heartbroken."