Gold, old and cold were the keywords Wednesday in the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Gold, because that's what four-time champion Lance Mackey collected when he beat everyone to the race's halfway point. Mackey was awarded $3,000 in gold upon his 8:36 p.m. arrival in Iditarod, the ghost town that marks the halfway point on the southern route of the race.
Old, because that's one way to describe the four mushers -- Mackey, Sonny Lindner, Jeff King and Martin Buser -- at the front of the pack, a group that averages 54 years of age. Mackey is the youngster at 42; Lindner is 63, King is 57 and Buser is 54.
And cold, because it should be and it isn't. While wind and snow shut down air traffic in Takotna on Wednesday, rain is a distinct possibility as mushers get closer to the Yukon River. Warm weather has distinguished this year's race, and according to the Iditarod Insider, the trail beyond Iditarod is "turning to oatmeal."
Mackey beat Lindner to Iditarod by 94 minutes.
Winning the GCI Dorothy G. Page Halfway Award means a trophy and $3,000 in placer gold nuggets for Mackey. And it could mean a sign of better things to come for the Fairbanks musher.
Mackey has twice won the halfway prize while racing the southern route, in 2007 and 2009. Both times he went on to claim victory in Nome.
Mackey, a cancer survivor, joked that he needs the victory because he needs the new Dodge pickup that comes with it.
"My ex-wife got the first truck," he said at the ceremonial start in Anchorage, "and the '09 truck, I'm almost embarrassed to drive it in public it's so beat up. So when I say I need a new truck I'm not kidding. The '09's got no window in it, the lights are busted out, (and) the front bumper's gone."
But Mackey isn't in the driver's seat yet. While he is the leader on the trail, Buser remains the leader on paper.
Buser's unprecedented 20-hour run to Rohn shook things up early in the race and continues to confound onlookers, who wonder how the dogs will respond after making such a long push with limited rest.
So far, Buser and his team of 14 dogs seem to be doing fine since their 24-hour layover in Rohn.
Buser passed through Takotna at 1:18 p.m., leaving behind a group including Aaron Burmeister and Aliy Zirkle, who took their 24-hour layovers there. Burmeister, the first musher to reach Takotna, returned to the trail at 10:14 p.m. Wednesday.
Buser reached Ophir, about 23 miles from Takotna, shortly after 4 p.m. Wednesday. He stayed for 98 minutes and was back on the trail by 5:48 p.m.
Though Mackey, Lindner and King are ahead of Buser, the Big Lake musher is the true leader. He has already taken his mandatory 24-hour break, but the three ahead of him have not.
The leaders are on record pace, although it's too early to say John Baker's 2011 record is in jeopardy. There's another 500 miles to go, and any number of things could change the race pace.
Weather is one of them. The closer to the Yukon River, the warmer it appears to be. The race's GPS tracker indicated that it was in the mid-30s near Iditarod when Mackey arrived at 8:36 p.m.
Sled dogs prefer single-digit temperatures, yet so far the heat isn't slowing down the frontrunners.
"I'm amazed they have gone this fast with how hot it's been," said Angie Taggart, a Ketchikan teacher and back-of-the-pack musher in Nikolai, where temperatures were in the high 20s Wednesday. "My dogs are really having a hard time."
Burmeister welcomed the potential shake-up the weather could bring.
"I think it's exciting. It's great," he told Iditarod Insider. "It'll be interesting. It's gonna be a workout. It's gonna change a lot of people's race strategy with the slower trail and a lot tougher runs with the weather and wind, and it sounds like probably more than likely on the Yukon it might even rain on us.
"...You might see a complete shake-up in the front pack by the Yukon."
Reach Beth Bragg at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.
More Iditarod coverage
By BETH BRAGG and KEVIN KLOTT