UPDATE 8 PM FRIDAY
Aliy Zirkle and Jake Berkowitz are out of Grayling after completing mandatory eight-hour layovers at the Yukon River checkpoint, the bookends of an eight-musher platoon in pursuit of Martin Buser.
Based on departure times out of Grayling, Buser owns a five-hour lead over Zirkle and is nearly seven hours ahead of Berkowitz.
Buser began the 60-mile run from Grayling to Eagle Island at 12:52 p.m.
Zirkle, last year's runnerup, was the first to give chase, leaving at 5:54 p.m. when her eight hours were up. Berkowitz, 26 and part of the mushing's wave of young guns, left at 7:39 p.m. when his layover ended.
Between them was a mix of old and new -- Norwegian rookie Joar Leifseth Ulsom (6:25 p.m. departure), 2011 Rookie of the Year Nicolas Petit of Girdwood (6:39 p.m.), tough and steady Jessie Royer of Montana (6:55), 2004 champion Mitch Seavey of Seward (6:58 p.m.), four-time champion Jeff King of Denali Park (also at 6:58 p.m.) and last year's fourth-place finisher, Aaron Burmeister of Nome (7:06 p.m.).
Berkowitz is the only one out of Grayling who is still driving a full team of 16 dogs.
He clocked the fastest time on the 18-mile run from Anvik to Grayling, doing it in 2 hours, 15 minutes. Buser had the second fastest time at 2:25. None of the frontrunners did it slower than 2:37.
UPDATE 3:30 PM FRIDAY
At this point, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has become Martin Buser's race to lose.
At 12:52 p.m., the four-time Iditarod champion sailed past Grayling and the group of mushers who had leapfrogged his team in Anvik earlier this morning while he was napping and eating gourmet food. Buser is now heading for the Eagle Island checkpoint with few mushers chasing his tail.
The nearest dog driver is Sterling's Mitch Seavey, who finished serving his mandatory eight-hour rest in Shageluk at 9:59 a.m. Iditarod's official standings say the 2004 Iditarod champion sits in 15th place, but in reality has the best shot at catching up to Buser. Seavey is just a few miles outside of Grayling while Buser is 15 miles upriver from the village.
Other than Buser and Seavey, the only other mushers who have finished taking their eight-hour breaks are Ray Redington Jr. and Dallas Seavey.
UPDATE 12:30 PM FRIDAY
Residents of Grayling greeted the first Iditarod musher to arrive there at 9:54 Friday morning when Aliy Zirkle pulled into the Yukon River checkpoint.
The Two Rivers musher in search of her first Iditarod victory completed the 18-mile run from Anvik seven minutes slower, but with two dogs fewer, than Aaron Burmeister, who arrived at 11:06 with 15 dogs. At 11:37 a.m., Big Lake musher Jake Berkowitz was the third musher to reach Grayling.
Burmeister left Anvik this morning wearing a raincoat. He also prepared himself to race upriver during the cold of the night.
"I decided to go to Grayling instead of going straight to Anvik, just to set myself for going up the river in the dark," the Nome musher said. "So I took a three-hour break on the way from Iditarod to Shageluk, just to set myself up for a night run tonight, thinking it was going to be sunny and not cloudy. But it is what it is."
Martin Buser, who completed his mandatory eight-hour layover at 10:17 a.m. in Anvik, is only a few miles outside of Grayling. Before leaving Anvik, the Big Lake musher was out in the dog lot, whistling while doing his daily dog chores, when another four-time champion, Lance Mackey, pulled into the checkpoint.
After Mackey parked his team, he took a moment to share his thoughts about Buser's unprecedented run from Willow to Rohn.
"I couldn't help but scratch my head a little bit like everybody else," Mackey said. "We'll see if it pans out for him. So far it looks like he's done the right thing. The guy's been around a long time; he knows what he's doing."
Buser especially knows dog care. He left one named Rachel in Anvik. She had a sore bicep. While wolfing down his prize five-course meal this morning, Buser talked about dropping dogs. He said he doesn't obsess over the number of dogs in his team and doesn't have a problem dropping dogs that aren't able to keep up.
At 54 years old, Buser seems to be keeping up with his team just fine. He took a much-needed nap before heading out of Anvik, down the bluff and onto the frozen Yukon.
"I don't know really know the standings or who is where," Buser told Iditarod Insider. "But I know I'm here and it's raining."
Looking to join Rick Swenson as Iditarod's only five-time champions, Buser feels his dogs are better equipped to run in these temperatures than teams that train in climates farther north. Buser lives in a region some Alaskans call the "Banana Belt."
"We don't mind (warm weather) quite as much compared to Fairbanks or Kotzebue dogs," he said.
He was happy to hear from a reporter that while he was napping, Zirkle, Burmeister and Berkowitz had blown past Anvik without taking their eight-hour rest.
"That's wonderful for me," he said. "If you haven't taken your eight, then you're not really in the driver's seat because I don't need to take another eight -- and I know they don't need a full eight. And I love to have a team in front of me. They go absolutely berserk when other teams are around."
UPDATE 9 AM FRIDAY
Aliy Zirkle and Aaron Burmeister are on the run up the Yukon River, where it's unseasonably warm and rainy.
Zirkle, a Two Rivers musher, didn't stop long enough in Anvik to chat with race leader Martin Buser. Instead she headed upriver at 7:21 Friday morning to take her mandatory eight-hour break somewhere along the frozen Yukon. Burmeister followed her lead, buzzing through the village at 8:40 a.m.
Rain is beginning to fall on the Yukon and temperatures are soaring. It's now almost 40 degrees in Anvik. Burmeister was asked how his dog Tok, used to running in much lower temperatures in Nome, is handling the heat.
"Anything above zero is too warm," said Burmeister, who is wearing a raincoat. "They're movin' right through it."
The 43-year-old Zirkle seemed a little rushed to skip town, but she made sure to open at least one of her drop bags to take out snacks for her dogs. Zirkle told onlookers she wasn't rich enough to waste supplies.
Zirkle's team made the run from Shageluk to Anvik faster than Buser by 22 minutes. Where Zirkle will take her eight-hour break is anybody's guess. During the 2011 race -- the year she placed what was then her career-best 11th -- Zirkle went all the way to Eagle Island, 80 miles upstream from Anvik.
At this point, Zirkle is likely battling a severe case of sleep deprivation. All mushers do at some stage in the race. But consider this: Since leaving her 24-hour break in Takotna, Zirkle has traveled roughly 180 miles and has logged only 35 minutes of rest at a total of four checkpoints.
Nicolas Petit continued his impressive Iditarod after pulling into Anvik in third at 7:34 a.m. He arrived carrying a dog in the sled. Petit parked his sled and immediately went for a blue bag of straw. Beaver, the dog, seemed ready to run upon arrival.
Norwegian Joar Leifseth Ulsom arrived in Anvik minutes after Petit. He said he is staying for his eight-hour layover.
UPDATE 6 AM FRIDAY
While race leader Martin Buser enjoys his award-winning breakfast in Anvik, behind him are two groups of dog drivers making strategic moves aimed at preventing the 54-year-old Big Lake musher from running away with the Iditarod title.
It appears that Sterling's Mitch Seavey is declaring his eight-hour layover in the village of Shageluk, and Big Lake's Jake Berkowitz has decided to push toward the front of the pack. Though Shageluk technically isn't on the Yukon River, it's still an option for mushers who must take an eight-hour break somewhere along the mighty frozen river.
Seavey arrived first in Shageluk at 1:59 a.m. Friday -- 18 minutes before Buser came into Anvik -- while Berkowitz joined Seavey 15 minutes later. Berkowitz rested his dogs about four hours before pulling his snow hook. This move suggests Berkowitz could be making an aggressive charge past Buser in Anvik and heading to the next village of Grayling, a viable option for taking his mandatory rest.
Only 25 miles separates Shageluk and Anvik. The trail connecting the two villages is reportedly hard and fast.
"Once they hit the trail here it's well-driven all the way to Nome," said lifelong Shageluk resident Arnold Hamilton from his home.
A pack of three is out of Shageluk and the way to Anvik. Two Rivers' Aliy Zirkle is out in front and paving the way for two less experienced mushers: Girdwood's Nicolas Petit and rookie Joar Leifseth Ulsom. Behind this pack is Nome's Aaron Burmeister, the fifth musher to leave Shageluk.
Meanwhile, a bigger pack of mushers joined Seavey and Berkowitz this morning, all within an hour and a half of each other: Pete Kaiser (3:58), Ray Redington Jr. (4:25), Paul Gebhardt (4:46), Jessie Royer (4:53), Dallas Seavey (4:59) and Sonny Lindner (5:31). It's likely that many of them have also decided to forgo Anvik for their eight-hour layover and stay put in Shageluk.
Behind this group are two Iditarod veterans playing catchup. As of 6:20 a.m., Willow's DeeDee Jonrowe and Fairbanks' Lance Mackey were only a few miles outside of Shageluk.
It should be noted that every Iditarod winner since 2007 has taken his eight-hour break in Anvik, a southern-route checkpoint mushers pass through every other year.
By KEVIN KLOTT and BETH BRAGG
Anchorage Daily News