Race leader is anybody's guess

Craig MedredAlaska Dispatch News

Update Paul Gebhardt led a group of 12 mushers out of Ophir overnight, the last leaving at 4:13 a.m. However, right behind them at Takotna Kjetil Backen had completed his 24-hour layover and was back on the trail at 4:17 a.m. Jeff King completed his 24 and left Takotna at 5:13 a.m. Lance Mackey remained but was close to his 24-hour mark as well. Hans Gatt, Rick Swenson and William Kleedehn completed their 24s and hit the trail out of McGrath between 3 and 4 a.m.

Sometime today, a leader may emerge from an Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race clouded by a host of closely matched dog teams, a record-breaking field and the annual confusion about who is taking their mandatory 24-hour rest stop where.

One such pause is required somewhere along the 1,100-mile trail from Anchorage to Nome, and many of the top teams had already settled in to rest on Wednesday as wet snow and rain fell over a melting Interior.

Five-time champion Rick Swenson called conditions dangerously warm and said he stopped along the trail between Nikolai and McGrath to give one of his bigger dogs a cooling bath because it was starting to overheat.

The Two Rivers musher, who looks to have his team back in the hunt this year, eventually braked to a halt in McGrath at about 2 a.m. Wednesday. He will have completed his rest and be back on the trail by the time you read this.

Defending champ Lance Mackey from Fairbanks, four-time champ Jeff King from Denali Park and Norwegian Kjetil Backen pushed on down the trail about another 20 miles to Takotna, where they started their layovers about the same time as Swenson back in McGrath.

Former champion Mitch Seavey from Sterling led a gang of top contenders through Takotna on another 40 miles to Ophir.

Seavey, who spent the afternoon there, was clearly intending to stay. He'll finish his 24 about 10 a.m. today.

But it was unclear how many of the front-runners with him intended to do likewise.

Among those who may rest here were the Busers -- Martin and son Rohn. Eighteen-year-old Rohn, running mainly the second-string team from the Buser's Happy Trails Kennel -- was a surprising ninth Wednesday, only an hour and a half behind his dad.

Out front of them, a handful of teams committed to pushing on, either to win the halfway prize of silver at Cripple or to drive almost 175 miles to Ruby on the Yukon River before giving the dogs a break.

Paul Gebhardt from Kasilof tried that tactic of pushing far two years ago.

Though a lot of teams passed him while he was resting in Galena in 2006, his dogs bounced back strong enough that they caught and passed most of the teams that had rested earlier.

Only two teams got away -- eventual race winner Jeff King and four-time champion Doug Swingley, now retired.

Gebhardt looked to be trying a similar strategy this year as he led the way out of Ophir. Falling in behind him were Zack Steer from Sheep Mountain, last year's surprise third-place finisher, and Hugh Neff from Skagway.

And the weather has thrown a wild card into the mix for everyone.

Temperatures near 40 degrees have softened trails and slowed all the teams.

Mushers with the fastest dogs have lost their edge to teams that can slog it out. Dogs used to the bitter Interior cold are having the worst of it. One such team, belonging to Jessica Hendricks of Two Rivers, scratched Thursday soon after she dropped five dogs in one checkpoint.

Such working northern dogs stay comfortable in extreme cold, and adjusting their thermostat isn't as easy as turning the one in your living room. It takes days or weeks to change.

"It's critical in this particular race, with these temperatures, to stay out of the ... noon to 6 p.m. zone,'' said Matt Hayashida of Willow. "I came over here at night and noticed a huge difference, even though there was not much of a temperature change. It was still 30 degrees."

Thirty degrees is, however, better than 40 degrees.

"When I left Buffalo Camp (in the Farewell Burn), it was like 41 degrees,'' Hayashida said. "(Leaving) was the stupidest thing, but the dogs did OK. My plan was to go through (McGrath) and go to Takotna.''

He changed his mind after a 6:30 a.m. arrival. He didn't want to rest his team four or five hours and then head out into the warmest part of the day.

Mushers in the checkpoint were all talking about carrying too much warm clothing for themselves and their dogs.

Allen Moore from Fairbanks noted that putting booties on the dogs' feet in these conditions is like putting mittens on the hands of people. It warms them up when they should be cooling down.

Rick Casillo from Sterling said it hasn't been this warm on the trail since a race earlier this decade, when, he says, it reached 52 in Cripple. Some mushers ended up walking their teams the 110 miles from Cripple to Ruby that year.

"When I did my scheduling, I thought there would be typical weather,'' Hayashida said, "but I guess there's no such thing.

"With these conditions I'd be hesitant to banzai up to Cripple (like some mushers did). But Seavey's dogs run in warmer temperatures. Mine are doing pretty good. They're not from Fairbanks or anything. These are all dogs from the Mat-Su, the banana belt."

The banana belt suffered a cold snap the middle of this winter, but not as severe as what Hans Gatt was experiencing in Whitehorse, Yukon, or Ed Iten in Kotzebue. Those mushers' dogs are suffering a bit now.

"I've been trying to run more at night,'' said John Baker of Kotzebue. "They gotta start getting used to this soon.

"I wish (my pace) was faster. (But) in this scenario, we're doing fine. We're getting our rest. The pace is (only) different between the leaders because one team is resting more or less than others.''

Baker, a top-10 finisher for seven years running, remained confident that although he was camped out far behind the leaders in McGrath, he'd be back among them when mushers finish their 24 hour rests.

Find Craig Medred online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588. Reporter Kevin Klott contributed to this story.

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