Leaders rest in Nikolai as temperature rises

Craig MedredAlaska Dispatch News
Gerald Sousa gets some rest as the snow falls on Puntilla Lake at the Iditarod's Rainy Pass checkpoint on Monday, March 9, 2009.
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
Clientele of the Rainy Pass Lodge converse while an Iditarod musher passes by outside on Puntilla Lake on Monday evening, March 9, 2009.
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
Martin Buser departs from the Rainy Pass Iditarod checkpoint Monday evening, March 9, 2009.
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
Matt Hayashida gives his dogs a snack during a rest at Rainy Pass on Monday, March 9, 2009.
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
Dallas Seavey's team eyes him as he prepares to snack them during a rest on Puntilla Lake in Rainy Pass, Alaska on Monday, March 9, 2009. 090309
Martin Buser spreads some straw for his team shortly after arriving at the Rainy Pass checkpoint on Puntilla Lake on Monday afternoon, March 9, 2009.
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
Ed Iten passes through the lot at the Rainy Pass Iditarod checkpoint on Monday, March 9, 2009.
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
Ravens stir as Gerry Willomitzer and his team leave the Rainy Pass Iditarod checkpoint on March 9, 2009.
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
Matt Hayashida gives his dogs a snack during a rest at Rainy Pass on Monday, March 9, 2009.
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
Four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King has a trickle of blood on his face as he prepares to depart the Rainy Pass checkpoint on Puntilla Lake on March 9, 2009.
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
After checking in, Melissa Owens of Nome hops back on her sled to pass through the Rainy Pass checkpoint on Puntilla Lake without stopping on March 9, 2009.
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
DeeDee Jonrowe gives a team member a rub-down before they depart from the Rainy Pass Iditarod checkpoint on March 9, 2009.
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
Ed Iten arrives at the Rainy Pass Iditarod checkpoint on Puntilla Lake on March 9, 2009.
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
Ed Iten arrives at the Rainy Pass Iditarod checkpoint on Puntilla Lake on March 9, 2009.
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
Defending Iditarod champion Lance Mackey departs the Rainy Pass checkpoint on Puntilla Lake on Monday, March 9, 2009.
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
Call, a member of Jeff King's team, curls up for some rest on the Rainy Pass checkpoint at Puntilla Lake on Monday, March 9, 2009.
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
Martin Buser arrives at the Rainy Pass Iditarod checkpoint on Puntilla Lake on Monday afternoon, March 9, 2009.
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News

The curse of the tropics was upon the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race as the leaders rolled into the always-welcoming Interior village of Nikolai shortly before noon today.

Temperatures at places in the Farewell Burn were reported to be near 40 degrees thanks to the remnants of a storm that pushed up into the North Pacific and then onshore in Western Alaska on Monday. By today, it had drifted east toward the trail.

Mushers generally like temperatures of 20 degrees or colder so dogs don't overheat, but warmer temperatures are good for resting.

And that's what the leaders were doing in Nikolai this afternoon.

Sebastian Schnuelle and Hugh Neff -- two Yukon mushers fresh off a record-fast Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race -- led the pack.

Doing the 1,000-mile Quest prior to the 1,000-mile Iditarod from Anchorage to Nome was once thought to guarantee failure in the latter. But defending Iditarod champ Lance Mackey put an end to that idea with his first Iditarod victory in 2007, and drove a spike through the idea last year when he again won both the Quest and the Iditarod. Mackey, however, sat out the Quest this year to help train another musher.

Time will tell whether that was a good decision.

The leader into Nikolai was Schnuelle from Whitehorse, who won the Quest in record time. Only a minute behind him was Neff from Annie Lake, the runner-up in the Quest by only five minutes.

It is likely Neff would have won the Quest had he not been penalized two hours for letting his team run down a highway. The dogs veered off a trail onto the road, and Neff didn't get them back on the trail as quickly as the race rules stipulate.

Neff appears to be trying to redeem himself in the Iditarod, although being at the front in this race is not unusual for him. He has often gone out fast early only to fade in the middle of the race and start falling back. His best-ever finish is 19th. He was in the top 10 to Nikolai last year and then fell all the way back to 25th at the finish.

For Schnuelle, meanwhile, this is new territory. He has never run at the front of the Iditarod before, but he does have a top-10 finish behind him. That came last year when he finished 10th, his best in four Iditarods.

Schnuelle has always run a conservative race, but he said before the start of this Iditarod that the victory in the Quest gave him a new confidence in both himself and his dog team. That has been on display almost since the Iditarod started. Schnuelle has been at or near the front every day.

Behind him and Neff into Nikolai were veterans Paul Gebhardt from Kasilof, Ed Iten from Kotzebue and Aaron Burmeister from Nenana. Gebhardt and Iten have been top-10 finishers for years, and both have come close to victory in the past. Iten was second in 2005. Gebhardt was second in 2007 and 2000.

Burmeister is one of a second generation of Iditarod mushers who has at times shown promise, but he has never quite managed to break through into the ranks of the elite. Though he is only 34 -- young by the standards of a race dominated by men near 50 -- he has already run 11 Iditarods, but he has never made the top 10. His best was 13th in 2007.

Live standings: Musher leaderboard
Reader-submitted: Iditarod photos
Mushers' current standings
Map: Iditarod trail and checkpoints
By CRAIG MEDRED
cmedred@adn.com