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Pack of icons bears down on leaders

Mike Campbell
Hugh Neff gets a kiss form Geronimo at the Takotna, Alaska, checkpoint on Wednesday March 10, 2010 during the 2010 Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Geronimo was born of Annie, Neff's main leader. A number of Annies offspring are on his team, which he calls "Annie's Army."
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Tokatna resident Jessie Fox gets fire going under the water barrel at the Takotna checkpoint on Wednesday March 10, 2010 during the 2010 Iditarod Sled Dog Race.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Sebastian Schnuelle's sled dogs with glow stick collars at the Takotna checkpoint on Wednesday March 10, 2010 during the 2010 Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Takotna volunteers thought two mushers were coming in when Schnuelle arrived because he had a light mounted on his leaders chest.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
The Norwegian Takotna Parking Service team parks Lachlan Clarke's team at the Takotna checkpoint on Wednesday March 10, 2010 during the 2010 Iditarod Sled Dog Race.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Sebastian Schnuelle visits with his dogs Scruggs, Grisman and Cougar at the Takotna checkpoint on Wednesday morning March 10, 2010 during the 2010 Iditarod Sled Dog Race.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Fairbanks musher Sven Haltmann gets hot water at the Takotna checkpoint on Wednesday March 10, 2010 during the 2010 Iditarod Sled Dog Race.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Iditarod musher Lance Mackey rubs the head of Rev after rubbing ointment in one of the dog's front legs at the Takotna checkpoint on Wednesday March 10, 2010 during the 2010 Iditarod Sled Dog Race.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Jim Lanier, the oldest musher in this years Iditarod at 69, lost the tips of his fingers to frost bite in a race out of Coldfoot in the Brooks Range in 1985. Lanier talks about his mushing career in the Takotna checkpoint on Wednesday March 10, 2010 during the 2010 Iditarod Sled Dog Race.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Iditarod vet Emi Berger checks Allen Moore's dogs the Takotna checkpoint on Wednesday March 10, 2010 during the 2010 Iditarod Sled Dog Race.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Iditarod musher William Pinkham's dog Rincon is tied up the back of a truck at the McGrath, Alaska, checkpoint on the Kuskokwim River Wednesday March 10, 2010 during the 2010 Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Rincon earlier chewed through the gang line.
Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News
Iditarod musher William Pinkham's dog Rincon chewed through the gang line at the McGrath, Alaska, checkpoint on the Kuskokwim River Wednesday March 10, 2010 during the 2010 Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Pinkham works on splicing the line back together.
Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News
Tom Lesatz of Two Rivers, Alaska, puts a coat on his dog Maya at the McGrath, Alaska, checkpoint on the Kuskokwim River on Wednesday morning March 10, 2010 during the 2010 Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Lesatz is taking his 24 hour layover in McGrath.
Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News
Allen Moore of Two Rivers pulls into the McGrath, Alaska, checkpoint on the Kuskokwim River on Wednesday morning March 10, 2010, during the 2010 Iditarod Sled Dog Race.
Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News
Linwood Fiedler of Willow visits with his sled dog's Jeff, front, and Rigger at the McGrath, Alaska, checkpoint on the Kuskokwim River on Wednesday morning March 10, 2010 during the 2010 Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Fiedler is taking his 24 hour layover in McGrath.
Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News
Hugh Neff gets a kiss form Geronimo at the Takotna, Alaska, checkpoint on Wednesday March 10, 2010 during the 2010 Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Geronimo was born of Annie, Neff's main leader. A number of Annies offspring are on his team, which he calls "Annie's Army."
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Tokatna resident Jessie Fox gets fire going under the water barrel at the Takotna checkpoint on Wednesday March 10, 2010 during the 2010 Iditarod Sled Dog Race.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Sebastian Schnuelle's sled dogs with glow stick collars at the Takotna checkpoint on Wednesday March 10, 2010 during the 2010 Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Takotna volunteers thought two mushers were coming in when Schnuelle arrived because he had a light mounted on his leaders chest.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
The Norwegian Takotna Parking Service team parks Lachlan Clarke's team at the Takotna checkpoint on Wednesday March 10, 2010 during the 2010 Iditarod Sled Dog Race.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Sebastian Schnuelle visits with his dogs Scruggs, Grisman and Cougar at the Takotna checkpoint on Wednesday morning March 10, 2010 during the 2010 Iditarod Sled Dog Race.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Fairbanks musher Sven Haltmann gets hot water at the Takotna checkpoint on Wednesday March 10, 2010 during the 2010 Iditarod Sled Dog Race.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Iditarod musher Lance Mackey rubs the head of Rev after rubbing ointment in one of the dog's front legs at the Takotna checkpoint on Wednesday March 10, 2010 during the 2010 Iditarod Sled Dog Race.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Jim Lanier, the oldest musher in this years Iditarod at 69, lost the tips of his fingers to frost bite in a race out of Coldfoot in the Brooks Range in 1985. Lanier talks about his mushing career in the Takotna checkpoint on Wednesday March 10, 2010 during the 2010 Iditarod Sled Dog Race.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Iditarod vet Emi Berger checks Allen Moore's dogs the Takotna checkpoint on Wednesday March 10, 2010 during the 2010 Iditarod Sled Dog Race.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Iditarod musher William Pinkham's dog Rincon is tied up the back of a truck at the McGrath, Alaska, checkpoint on the Kuskokwim River Wednesday March 10, 2010 during the 2010 Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Rincon earlier chewed through the gang line.
Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News
Iditarod musher William Pinkham's dog Rincon chewed through the gang line at the McGrath, Alaska, checkpoint on the Kuskokwim River Wednesday March 10, 2010 during the 2010 Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Pinkham works on splicing the line back together.
Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News
Tom Lesatz of Two Rivers, Alaska, puts a coat on his dog Maya at the McGrath, Alaska, checkpoint on the Kuskokwim River on Wednesday morning March 10, 2010 during the 2010 Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Lesatz is taking his 24 hour layover in McGrath.
Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News
Allen Moore of Two Rivers pulls into the McGrath, Alaska, checkpoint on the Kuskokwim River on Wednesday morning March 10, 2010, during the 2010 Iditarod Sled Dog Race.
Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News
Linwood Fiedler of Willow visits with his sled dog's Jeff, front, and Rigger at the McGrath, Alaska, checkpoint on the Kuskokwim River on Wednesday morning March 10, 2010 during the 2010 Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Fiedler is taking his 24 hour layover in McGrath.
Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News

Rested and recharged, a small cavalry of some of the best dog mushers in the world were on their sleds well before dawn Thursday, bearing down on the leaders in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Four-time champion Jeff King of Denali Park led the charge out of the ghost town of Ophir at 3 a.m. after finishing his mandatory 24-hour layover. King had dropped one dog, leaving him with 15.

Before 5 a.m., Hugh Neff of Tok, Sebastian Schnuelle of Whitehorse, Mitch Seavey of Sterling, Sven Haltmann of Willow and Zach Steer of Sheep Mountain had followed King out with fresh teams of at least 14 dogs.

The 60-mile run from Ophir to Cripple -- followed by the even longer run from Cripple to Ruby on the Yukon River -- penetrates some of the most desolate terrain on the Iditarod Trail. Mushers encounter seemingly endless sparse scrub spruce and rolling hills in the once-thriving gold mining country.

Expect the chasers to shoot into the lead of the 38th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race by this afternoon.

Sitting atop the leader board for the moment is Dallas Seavey, the highly regarded 23-year-old who finished a spectacular sixth last year.

Seavey may not win the 1,000-mile race to Nome, but he got a little wealthier Thursday morning when he bagged $3,000 in gold nuggets for being first to reach the halfway point of Cripple. Seavey arrived at the abandoned mining camp at 1:26 a.m., winning the GCI Dorothy Page Halfway Award.

He edged Kotzebue's John Baker by just 11 minutes.

By 6 a.m., only Martin Buser, the four-time champion from Big Lake, had joined the tandem in Cripple. Mushing into wind chills of minus 20 or worse, all three struggled to get there, averaging between 3.5 and 5 mph en route. That, of course, includes any time stopped to rest or snack the dog team.

In a low-snow year, the trail from Cripple to Ruby, where temperatures slipped below minus 10 overnight, can be a long, slow grind. But if there's good snow, it can be an enjoyable ride.

Behind the first two groups, another pack of mushers who took their 24-hour rests in Takotna were back on the trail, too. In that group were five-time champion Rick Swenson and former runners-up Paul Gebhardt and DeeDee Jonrowe, joined by Ken Anderson of Fox, Jason Barron of Lincoln, Mont., and Ryan Redington of Wasilla.

"Every year the question arises: What is the smartest place to take your 24? In the last couple of years, the best move was to take it early, at Takotna or McGrath, because the trail was soft beyond Ophir," wrote former Iditarod racer Jon Little on his race blog. "Ophir to Cripple is the most remote stretch of trail in the race, since it is put in solely for the race by a fleet of about five savvy snowmobilers.

"There's no base. So in deep snow years, it's often best to wait at Takotna, and enjoy their homemade pies, while the trail sets up and hardens in the cold air overnight.

"This year, as race leader Jeff King noted in a video clip, may be different. There's less snow and hard trails. 'This might be a year where, OK, keep going,' he said."

Three-time defending champion Mackey is down to 12 dogs, fewer than he's had midway through his championship races. They remain a powerful team, but if injury or illness takes out another two or three animals, Mackey could be in trouble.

Reach reporter Mike Campbell at mcampbell@adn.com or 257-4329.

Photos: Day 5 (McGrath and Takotna)
Reader-submitted photos
By MIKE CAMPBELL
mcampbell@adn.com