UPDATE 7 PM THURSDAY
Aliy Zirkle is leading the charge to catch cagey Martin Buser.
Zirkle, last year's runnerup, left the Iditarod checkpoint in pursuit of the race leader at 5:20 p.m. Thursday. Four others had followed by 6:30.
Zirkle trails Buser by about four hours. Buser, a four-time champion who leads thanks to his nearly nonstop run to Rohn, left Iditarod at 2 p.m.
Following Zirkle were Aaron Burmeister at 6:05 p.m., and Mitch Seavey and Jake Berkowitz, who both left at 6:30 p.m.
The Iditarod checkpoint is getting busy, with 13 mushers there now, a group that includes defending champion Dallas Seavey, who arrived at 5:37 p.m. in 17th place, and 2011 champion John Baker, who arrived at 6:26 in 18th place.
Zirkle didn't spend much time there -- just 10 minutes. Both Buser and Burmeister rested at Iditarod for five hours before returning to the trail, but Zirkle appears to have rested her team somewhere on the trail, because the 80-mile run from Ophir took her 15 hours and 36 seconds.
The fastest time so far on the run from Ophir is the 10:12 recorded by Nicolas Petit. Burmeister had the second fastest at 11:42.
UPDATE 5 PM THURSDAY
There's a loose sled dog somewhere on the Iditarod Trail.
Mae, a member of musher Newton Marshall's team, is missing between Rohn and Nikolai, race officials reported Thursday afternoon. "All efforts are being made by (the) Iditarod Trail Committee to assist in locating Mae," the race said in a press release.
Marshall, the only Jamaican to do the race, scratched at 3:20 p.m. in Nikolai. He's been at the checkpoint since 4 p.m. Wednesday.
Marshall, who finished the 2010 Iditarod in 47th place, was running Kelley Griffin's puppy team.
UPDATE 3 PM THURSDAY
Martin Buser bid farewell to a ghost town teeming with champions and returned to the trail this afternoon, the no-doubt-about it leader of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
After resting for five hours, Buser left the checkpoint of Iditarod at 2 p.m. with a team of 14 dogs. He's the race leader -- no asterisk necessary, because the front-runners are finally on equal footing now that they've completed or are nearing completion of their 24-hour layovers.
Before Buser left, he was one of five mushers at the checkpoint. Between them, they owned 12 Iditarod titles and six Yukon Quest titles.
Lance Mackey, who claimed $3,000 in gold for being the first arrival at the halfway point, is a four-time winner of both races. Buser and Jeff King each own four Iditarod titles, and King has one Quest victory. And Lindner won the inaugural Quest in 1984.
Only Aaron Burmeister, the fifth musher to reach Iditarod, has not recorded a victory in either of mushing's premier 1,000-mile races.
Shortly after Buser departed, another champion arrived -- 2004 Iditarod champ Mitch Seavey, who parked his team of 13 dogs at 2:18 p.m. He completed his 24-hour layover in Takotna.
Mushers can choose take the 24-hour break anywhere they want. When they do, their departure time is adjusted to make up for the differential that happens because of the race's staggered start, which sends mushers out in two-minute intervals.
Buser started first in the field of 66 mushers, so when he did his 24-hour layover in Rohn, he actually had to stay for an extra 130 minutes to account for his early start. Sonny Lindner, who is taking his 24-hour break in Iditarod, was the last musher to start, 130 minutes after Buser, so he gets to go as soon as his 24 hours are up.
UPDATE 2 PM THURSDAY
Nome's Aaron Burmeister is in Iditarod, the fifth musher to reach the race's halfway point.
Whoever leaves first will be the first person since the race started Sunday to be both the trail leader and the leader on paper.
Burmeister reached Iditarod at 12:46 p.m. Thursday, nearly four hours after Martin Buser's morning arrival.
Burmeister and Buser completed their 24-hour layovers earlier in the race, while the other three men at the checkpoint -- Lance Mackey, Sonny Lindner and Jeff King -- are taking their 24-hour breaks and won't be able to leave until late Thursday.
Once Mackey and the others have completed their layovers, this group of five is on even footing for the first time since the race began. All will have completed their 24-hour layovers and all will have had their times adjusted to make up for the race's interval start.
Ahead of them is Shageluk, about 50 miles away, and Anvik, another 30 miles away. Anvik is the first village on the Yukon River and the place where a seven-course gourmet meal awaits the first musher to get there.
Burmeister arrived in Iditarod after an 80-mile run from Ophir that he completed in 11 hours, 42 minutes. Buser did it in 13:14, Lindner in 14:01, Mackey in 14:51 and King in 16:16. Mackey, Lindner and King all took long breaks during the run, according to GPS data.
UPDATE 10 AM THURSDAY
Martin Buser has arrived at the Iditarod's halfway point, but it's unclear exactly how long the race leader plans to stay at the remote checkpoint.
The Big Lake musher pulled in at 9:02 a.m. with about 20 or so miles separating his team from Aaron Burmeister's team. It took Buser 13 hours, 14 minutes to travel the 80 miles from Ophir to Iditarod. That is the fastest Ophir-to-Iditarod run time among the four mushers who are currently in Iditarod.
That's good news for Buser, considering he has rested his dogs only a total of 7 hours and 50 minutes since leaving Rohn 236 miles ago. Since then he's had to drop two dogs.
"Must have gone too fast ... for a couple of dogs," Buser told Iditarod Insider after dropped them in Takotna.
His run time is also solid considering the trail reports and weather forecasts. Reporters and mushers are calling it a slow, windy and unseasonably warm and wet haul down this remote stretch of trail that connects two deserted mining towns.
One report estimated 30 mph winds at Don's Cabin, about 34 miles outside of Ophir. An Iditarod Insider cameraman issued an advisory to all mushers to be aware of a flooded trail about 10 miles before Iditarod. Then last night Sonny Lindner told checkpoint officials temperatures hit a balmy 52 degrees on Wednesday.
"This is a rough run over from Ophir," four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King said. "Parts of it were very tough from wind and soft trail."
Lance Mackey couldn't have agreed more with King.
"Are we in Nome?" the Fairbanks musher joked after pulling into Iditarod, where he bagged $3,000 in gold for reaching the halfway point first. "Pretty sure it took me long enough to get here."
"Oh yeah, you're way behind," a checkpoint volunteer told him.
"Slow, oh my good God," Mackey said. "Slower than drool."
HEADING HOME: Healy musher David Sawatzky became the third musher overall to scratch in the 41st running of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The 59-year-old, who was racing in his eighth Iditarod, officially pulled out off the race in McGrath at 9:31 this morning "out of concern for his dogs," an Iditarod press release said. This is the second straight time Sawatzky has failed to reach Nome. The retired equipment operator scratched during his last race in 2009. His career-best Iditarod finish came in 1996 when he was eighth.
UPDATE 6 AM THURSDAY
If all goes well for Martin Buser in the next few hours, he will no longer be the musher who is only mathematically in first place.
It's expected that he will pass Lance Mackey, Sonny Lindner and Jeff King -- who are all taking their mandatory 24-hour breaks Thursday morning in the checkpoint of Iditarod. And when that happens, the Big Lake musher will literally be the leader in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
But the question is how long will Buser be able to sustain that distinction.
On Sunday and Monday, Buser ran his dogs from the start in Willow to the checkpoint of Rohn with less than an hour and a half of rest. In 40 Iditarods no musher had ever tried that. Since then mushers, race followers, and even Buser himself, have wondered if such a gamble would pay off or burn out the dogs.
So far this plan, which Buser said was eight years in the making, seems to be working out as he tries to capture his fifth Iditarod championship and his first since 2002. It's way too early, though, to say this year's Iditarod is a race for second place.
Not far behind Buser is a group of mushers ready to play catchup. Aaron Burmeister, Mitch Seavey and Aliy Zirkle are on their way to Iditarod after leaving Takotna and their 24-hour layovers late Wednesday. Also in that group is Jake Berkowitz, who took off from his 24 in Ophir at 2 this morning.
Other 24'ed mushers in the mix are Jessie Royer, Ray Redington Jr., rookie Joar Leifseth Ulsom, DeeDee Jonrowe, defending champion Dallas Seavey and Matt Failor. This pack checked out of Ophir early this morning -- all within 30 minutes of each other.
These two packs are traveling along an 80-mile route that was reported on Wednesday to have very little snow in places. But that could all change now that a winter weather warning is in effect for this region. Forecasts are calling for snow, freezing rain and wind gusts expected to reach 30 to 50 mph.
Bad weather can turn this section of the Iditarod Trail into some of the most hostile terrain on the planet. High winds have been known to pin teams down and create havoc among leaders as they try to spot trail markers for their drivers.
"I guess if the wind picks up like it's supposed to ... it could make a big difference," Bethel's Pete Kaiser told Iditarod Insider while finishing his 24 in Takotna. "If you're battling 30-mph winds across a trail that's already not much of a trail and it's drifted in ... it could be a game changer.
"But the forecast isn't always right."
More Iditarod coverage
By KEVIN KLOTT and BETH BRAGG
Anchorage Daily News