UNALAKLEET -- More than a dozen miles outside of this coastal community Saturday afternoon, Aliy Zirkle helped push her sled with two ski poles as her dogs pulled, trotting along the icy, fast Iditarod Trail.
It was not until later that the Two Rivers musher -- runner-up the past two years and not yet an Iditarod champion -- realized she was in the lead. Zirkle was a couple of miles in front of Big Lake's Martin Buser, a four-time winner and the musher who owns one of the fastest times in the history of the race.
"I didn't know until eight miles ago that Martin wasn't ahead of me," Zirkle said after reaching the checkpoint that marks the race's departure from the Yukon River and arrival on the Norton Sound coast.
Zirkle got here earlier than anyone since Robert Sorlie made a Saturday afternoon appearance in 2003, the year the race started in Fairbanks and followed a different route to Unalakleet.
She rolled into the checkpoint at 4:39 p.m. to cheers from a throng of people that had gathered.
Among the crowd was her dad, Doug Zirkle, up from Florida. He said he had not talked to his daughter since the race started and was only hoping to make eye contact. But Dad got a hug and gave his daughter a kiss on the cheek.
As the first musher here, Zirkle won the Gold Coast Award and $2,500 worth of gold nuggets mined near Nome.
"So this is where the party is, huh?" she said before posing for pictures with anyone who asked.
But Zirkle was not up for partying, saying she needed to get some sleep. She was back on the trail by 8:48 p.m., driving a team of 11 dogs.
Zirkle said she slept for about an hour Friday night in a cabin at a place called Tripod Flats. She saw Buser's team go past while she was feeding her dogs and left about 45 minutes later.
Buser said he stopped down the trail at Old Woman Cabin, a place where an old woman's spirit is said to inhabit. He said he didn't see the ghosts of any old women.
"No young women, either," he said.
And Zirkle did not see Buser when she leap-frogged him.
"I was trying to catch him," Zirkle said. "Finally asked a four-wheeler guy, I said, 'How far ahead is Martin?' He goes, 'Martin's not ahead of you.' I was like, 'Wait a minute, what?'
"So I thought that was kind of funny."
Zirkle was the first of four mushers who reached Unalakleet in a three-hour span Saturday. Buser was second, arriving at 5:31 p.m., followed by Sonny Lindner at 6:07 p.m. and Jeff King at 7:29 p.m.
Soon after that came word that Nicolas Petit of Girdwood, running in fifth place, had scratched. Petit, the 2011 Rookie of the Year and last year's sixth-place finisher, was 11 miles away from Unalakleet when he decided to call it quits, telling race officials that his team was fatigued. He's the 16th racer to drop out, leaving a field of 53.
Even while she was following Buser, or thought she was following Buser, Zirkle said she didn't change her race plan.
"This is exactly how I wanted to run the race," Zirkle said. "The only thing that's different is my run times are faster than I expected. I don't know if the lead's ever secure, but I've got it now, which was the goal. I've just got to keep it."
Mushers will hug the Norton Sound coast for much of the remaining race.
"The trail is going to be challenging, I bet, with all the ice," Zirkle said. "But I'm up for a challenge."
Another challenge: Zirkle is on pace to shatter the record set in 2011 by Kotzebue's John Baker, who finished in 8 days, 18 hours, 46 minutes, 39 seconds. Baker, in turn, had taken the speed record from Buser, set in 2002, when he became the first to run the race in less than nine days.
That was the last time Buser won. This time, he's tired and beat up, and his dogs were showing signs of being worn out by the time they reached the coast -- "out of gas," he said.
Buser sprained his ankle earlier in the race, then dislocated his left pinky. It was wrapped to his ring finger Saturday while he worked on tying his old drag brake to a new sled, his third of the race.
The busted pinky was making work more difficult, Buser said.
"It keeps popping out. I keep pushing it back in," he said. "It's gotten pretty loose now. It needs help all the time now. It doesn't always stay in anymore."
By CASEY GROVE