WEDNESDAY 8:45 PM UPDATE
Lance Mackey is $3,000 richer.
The four-time Iditarod champion pulled into the ghost town called Iditarod at 8:48 p.m. Wednesday, the first musher to reach the halfway point of the 1,000-mile race.
For winning the Dorothy G. Page Halfway Award, Mackey will pocket $3,000 in gold.
This could be a sign of better things to come for the Fairbanks musher.
He has won the halfway prize twice before on the southern route of the race, in 2007 and 2009. Both times, he went on to claim victory in Nome.
WEDNESDAY 8 PM UPDATE:
Lance Mackey is closing in on Iditarod and the $3,000 in gold that awaits the first musher who reaches the race's halfway point.
The race's GPS tracker shows that Mackey is a mile away from the ghost town. He has opened up a lead of about 10 miles over Sonny Lindner, who earlier in the day passed Mackey's resting dogs on the 80-mile run from Ophir to Iditarod.
Lindner, 63, is a Two Rivers musher racing in his 18th Iditarod. Mackey, 42, is a four-time champion from Fairbanks.
Jeff King, a four-time champ from Denali Park, is another 10 miles behind, according to GPS data.
In fourth place and also headed to Iditarod is four-time champion Martin Buser of Big Lake.
Buser, whose dash to Rohn early in the race confounded his competitors, has been moving steadily along ever since ending his 24-hour layover in Rohn at noon Tuesday. He passed through Takotna at 1:18 p.m., leaving behind a group including Aaron Burmeister and Aliy Zirkle, who are taking their 24-hour layovers there.
Burmeister, the first musher to reach Takotna, is due to leave Takotna around 10 p.m. Wednesday, which will put him about nine hours behind Buser.
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 he trails Mackey, Lindner and King, Buser is in actuality the leader of the race. He has already taken his mandatory 24-hour break, but the three ahead of him have not.
WEDNESDAY 12:15 PM UPDATE
The next 24 hours are bound to build intriguing story lines for what has turned into a fast-paced Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
"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 are in the high 20s today. "My dogs are really having a hard time."
Warm weather hasn't seemed to bother the dogs of four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey, who is already on his way to the checkpoint of Iditarod. According to his GPS, he is camping about 43 miles outside Iditarod. The GPS tracking site is also registering a temperature of 41 degrees there.
A cancer survivor from Fairbanks, Mackey will soon have to fend off Sonny Lindner and Jeff King for the $3,000 in gold waiting for the first musher to arrive at the halfway point. It would be either the third Dorothy G. Page Halfway Award for Mackey, the third for King or the first for Lindner.
Mackey pocketed his first halfway award during his magical 2007 run, which kickstarted a string of four Iditarod championships. That year he chose to spend his mandatory 24-hour rest in Iditarod amid an 80-mile run through some of Alaska's wildest country. It's assumed that Mackey, Lindner and King will stay in Iditarod for 24 hours.
"The ultimate strategy is to use your 24-hour layover to the best advantage of the dogs," said Martin Buser in Rohn.
Mackey is surprised with the performance of his team so far. Four of his dogs are from this year's Yukon Quest team, which became ill at the halfway point of that race and forced the four-time winner to scratch. The rest of his Iditarod team is new, he said.
"I was not expecting to be even close to the front," Mackey told Iditarod Insider in Takotna. "This team is exceeding my expectations."
Following 10 to 15 miles behind Mackey are Lindner and King, who seem to be applying the same strategy as Mackey -- get far, far ahead of Buser.
These three are also making a statement that the standard Nikolai-to-Takotna run could be a thing of the past. The decisions they have made by chasing Mackey may have pressured others to change tactics and push ahead too.
As of 10:45 this morning, three more mushers -- Jim Lanier, Jason Mackey and Jodi Bailey -- had departed Takotna to join Jake Berkowitz and Nicolas Petit in Ophir. It appears, however, that Bailey may have turned around and headed back to Takotna. Iditarod checkers reported her leaving at 9:54 a.m., and the GPS showed her moving up the trail with Jason Mackey. But now her GPS shows that she is back in Takotna.
Nome's Aaron Burmeister will complete his 24-hour layover in Takotna around 10 p.m. The 36-year-old is trying to become the first musher from Nome to win the Iditarod. He's the only musher from the City of the Golden Sands to finish in the top five.
Two Rivers' Aliy Zirkle will finish her 24 about an hour after Burmeister. She's not only trying to win her first Iditarod but also attempting to become the first woman to win the Last Great Race since Susan Butcher in 1990.
UPDATE 8 a.m. Wednesday
Lance Mackey is going for the gold -- Iditarod gold, that is.
The 42-year-old musher spent only 15 minutes in Ophir, pushing his team ahead of the pack to become the first to arrive in the ghost town of Iditarod. Barring a disaster, the four-time Iditarod champion will soon claim $3,000 in gold nuggets for winning the Dorothy G. Page Halfway Award.
Gold might not be the only factor in his decision to head for Iditarod, where he will likely stay put for his 24-hour layover. He knows that Martin Buser is on the way.
Buser, a four-time champ from Big Lake, is stopped in McGrath but will soon be headed to Takotna and beyond. It appears that Mackey is trying to put as much distance as he can between him and Buser's team before settling down for the mandatory 24-hour rest.
Meanwhile, another four-time Iditarod champion, Jeff King, left the village of Takotna at 6:07 a.m. after resting for 4 hours and 56 minutes. Once he reaches Ophir, he will join Jake Berkowitz, Nicolas Petit and Sonny Lindner -- a pack that arrived there this morning.
King, 57, hasn't made such an aggressive move toward Ophir since 2007, the year he attempted to chase down Mackey but ended up second behind the Fairbanks musher.
Back in Takotna, DeeDee Jonrowe is one of 20 mushers taking a well-deserved rest along the Takotna River. On Tuesday afternoon, the 59-year-old Willow musher seemed relieved to have finished the 80-mile stretch between Rohn and Nikolai.
"All the good news they gave us was negated in that stretch of trail," she told Iditarod Insider. "Worst time I've ever had getting across the Post River. There was melted water on top of glare ice with a wind, and my dogs absolutely could not stay on the scratch, and down the Post River we went."
She decided to get off her runners, ball up her 16 dogs and pull them toward a safer spot on the river where they could find better footing.
"That was terrifying cause we were just headed down river," she said. "I mean it was wet ice."
But that wasn't even the worst of it, she said.
"We start down into the lakes and I think, 'Oh, praise God, the lakes' -- (and) they're glare ice," she exclaimed. "It's lake after lake after lake with wet ice with a side wind. I think (the dogs are) a little shellshocked."
WEDNESDAY 6:30 AM UPDATE
A group of four Iditarod leaders passed up 'round-the-clock Takotna steaks and pies overnight and bolted 21 miles north to the ghost town of Ophir, where some appear to be staying put for their mandatory 24-hour layover.
Those four mushers -- Big Lake's Jake Berkowitz, Girdwood's Nicolas Petit, Two Rivers' Sonny Lindner and Fairbanks' Lance Mackey -- all know what it's like to spend 24 hours in Takotna, a small town known for the comfort food and friendly atmosphere inside its checkpoint.
But this year plans changed. Tuesday night Berkowitz blew through Takotna and reached Ophir first at 1:14 a.m. Petit followed him in at 4:15 a.m. with 14 dogs, and Lindner arrived third at 5:15 a.m. Mackey came in fifth at 5:30 a.m. and stayed only 15 minutes. He appears to be headed to Iditarod for his 24-hour layover.
Perhaps these guys have been influenced by the boldness of Martin Buser, who earlier in the race did an unprecedented 169-mile Willow-to-Rohn run with hardly any major stops and with the idea of getting his 24-hour layover out of the way. Are they trying to get ahead of Buser as much as they possibly can? Or was this in their plan all along?
Only time will tell.
On paper, Mackey is now leading the 41st running of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. But in reality the 54-year-old Buser is looking to pass Berkowitz and the slew of teams stationed in Takotna -- including Tuesday's race leader Aaron Burmeister, who arrived first at 8:48 p.m. and decided to take his 24-hour layover there. So far Buser and Matt Failor are the only two mushers who have fulfilled their 24-hour layover.
Going past Takotna to take the 24-hour layover is risky for those who want to win that new Dodge truck, but it's not unprecedented. Back in 2007, Mackey went all the way to Iditarod -- 430-some miles into the 1,000-mile race -- before taking his 24-hour layover. That decision helped him win his first Iditarod.
Considering Mackey rested his dogs in Takotna for 5 hours and 28 minutes, the four-time champion decided to pass through Ophir this morning, which indicates he's thinking the 2007 plan might work for him this year too.
That was the last year a musher who chose to take a 24-hour layover past Takotna turned it into an Iditarod victory. Every Iditarod champion since then has fulfilled it in Takotna.
WEDNESDAY 2 AM UPDATE:
Martin Buser left Nikolai with a full team of 16 dogs early Wednesday, the Iditarod leader on paper if not on the trail. Buser, coming off his 24-hour layover in Rohn, reached Nikolai at 1:15 a.m. He left at 1:22 a.m.
Aaron Burmeister was the first musher to reach Nikolai, at 8:11 a.m. Tuesday. The important consideration: Buser had already completed his 24-hour layover by the time he reached Nikolai; Burmeister and other frontrunners had not. Based on Nikolai arrival times and factoring in the layovers, Buser is about seven hours ahead on paper.
Jake Berkowitz, the leader on the trail, reached Ophir at 1:14 a.m. Wednesday. He has yet to take his 24-hour layover.
Aaron Burmeister surged to the front of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Tuesday, but just when it looked like he might retire for the night as the race leader, Jake Berkowitz stole the lead away from him.
More Iditarod coverage
By KEVIN KLOTT, BETH BRAGG and KYLE HOPKINS
Anchorage Daily News