UPDATE, 8:30 p.m. Friday
From Beth Bragg --
Martin Buser still leads the Iditarod, but Aliy Zirkle is gaining on him.
Buser reached Nulato at 5:38 p.m. Friday. Sonny Lindner arrived at 6:27 and Zirkle at 7:47.
Zirkle shaved one hour off Buser's three-hour lead with her run from Galena and Nulato. She made the trip in 5 hours, 31 minutes, nearly an hour faster than Buser, who did it in 6:23.
Lindner made the run in 5:49, so he gained some time on Buser but remains farther behind than his position on the trail indicates. Like Jeff King, Lindner still needs to take an eight-hour mandatory layover somewhere on the Yukon River. Zirkle and most of the other top contenders have completed their eight-hour break.
All three teams in Nulato have 14 dogs.
A group of eight mushers is on the trail from Galena to Nome. Included in that bunch are former champs King, Robert Sorlie and Dallas Seavey.
UPDATE 7 p.m. Friday
From Beth Bragg --
Fairbanks musher John Dixon scratched Friday evening in Ophir. He was the second musher of the day to pull out of the race. Earlier, Ramey Smyth of Willow ended his scratchless streak at 19 when he ended his race in Ruby because he dogs are sick.
Dixon, 40, had 10 dogs in his team. Smyth, 38, was racing 12 dogs.
Dixon was back in the race for the first time since his rookie run in 2000.
Smyth, the runnerup to John Baker in 2011, scratched for the first time in 20 Iditarod starts.
UPDATE 2:30 p.m. Friday
From Beth Bragg --
Aliy Zirkle is in an all-too-familiar position in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Zirkle, the runnerup in the last two races, just completed her eight-hour layover in Galena and returned to the trail, three hours behind Iditarod leader Martin Buser, the four-time champion from Big Lake.
Zirkle is in second place even though fellow Two Rivers musher Sonny Lindner left Galena before she did. Lindner still needs to take a required eight-hour layover at one of the Yukon River checkpoints.
Buser and Zirkle already did their river rests, Buser in Ruby and Zirkle in Galena.
All three mushers on the trail to Nulato are driving teams of 14. Buser left Galena at 11:15 a.m. Friday, Linder followed at 12:38 p.m. and Zirkle at 2:16 p.m.
UPDATE 12:30 p.m. Friday
From Kevin Klott --
Big Lake's Martin Buser regained his lead in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Friday for the first time since he crossed the Farewell Burn into Nikolai on Tuesday.
A two-hour rest in Galena was all Buser needed to leapfrog Aliy Zirkle's resting team and take control of a race that is beginning to heat up along the frozen Yukon River. Buser pulled into Galena two hours and 43 minutes after Zirkle, who is likely staying there to complete her required eight-hour layover along the Yukon. He departed at 11:15 a.m. with 14 dogs.
Trail reports say the river is hard and fast, with a tailwind coming out of the north. Buser, a four-time Iditarod champion, knows just how important it is to take advantage of the Yukon when conditions are just right.
"The Yukon always is a decider if it's punchy and slow," he told Iditarod Insider. "My dogs tend to excel on a fast trail."
Behind him are a slew of dog teams that will be stacking up in Galena and farther downstream. Eleven teams departed Ruby between 4:41 a.m. and 10:53 a.m. Friday.
UPDATE 8 a.m. Friday: Zirkle claims first-to-Galena prize
From Kevin Klott --
In 13 Iditarod finishes, Aliy Zirkle has racked up $225,239 in prize money. She added $1,000 more to that total Friday morning when she pulled into Galena first to win the Bristol Bay Native Corp. Fish First Award.
Along with the cash, the Two Rivers musher also bagged 25 pounds of Bristol Bay salmon and a commemorative jacket. She was also presented with a supply of canned salmon as well as smoked salmon strips to help fuel her down the Yukon River.
Zirkle, 44, will need all the sustenance she can get to capture her first Iditarod win and become the first woman to accomplish the feat since 1990, when Susan Butcher won her fourth Iditarod.
Zirkle checked into Galena at 6:10 a.m. after clocking the 50-mile run from Ruby in a little less than six hours. Her lead is hardly safe, though. Four-time champion Martin Buser, who left Ruby two hours and 26 minutes after Zirkle, is on his way along with Aaron Burmeister and Robert Sorlie.
UPDATE 6:30 a.m. Friday: Zirkle takes the lead for now along the Yukon River
From Kevin Klott --
A new leader emerged overnight in the 42nd running of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and she's hungry for her first championship.
Aliy Zirkle, a runner-up in the last two Iditarods, arrived in Ruby at 12:09 this morning. She hopscotched the five Iditarod leaders who were resting there and then began the journey 50 miles down the Yukon River toward Galena.
The Two Rivers musher spent just nine minutes in Ruby, enough time to scribble her name on the checkpoint official's clipboard, replace a few dog booties, drop a dog -- she's down to 14 -- and skip town before anyone could pick her brain.
On paper, it appears the 44-year-old musher is cutting rest when in reality she is choosing to rest her dogs outside of checkpoints. Mushers call this camping, but without the tent and s'mores -- only a bale of straw and her dogs to keep her warm.
"Sleeping bags are overrated," she told Iditarod Insider while taking her mandatory 24-hour layover in Takotna.
Since coming off her 24 on Wednesday evening, Zirkle has logged only 39 total minutes of rest at the three checkpoints on the 165 miles of trail between Takotna and the frozen Yukon River.
Like any competitive musher, Zirkle would prefer to keep people guessing, but eventually she will have to stop and rest for eight hours at one of the Yukon River villages. It's mandatory for all mushers to rest for eight hours along the Yukon, mostly so trail veterinarians can give the dogs a proper inspection.
Zirkle's choices for taking her eight hours are Galena, Nulato and Kaltag.
In the meantime, she will have to fend off a pair of mushers who've been on the chase since the early morning hours. Martin Buser, fresh off his eight-hour rest, checked out of Ruby at 2:44 a.m. with 14 dogs and Aaron Burmeister left at 4:41 a.m. with 12 dogs.
Both mushers are battling war wounds they suffered miles and miles ago along the Farewell Burn. Buser is battling a bruised ankle and Burmeister is tending to a bum knee, which he said popped out.
"I've been at a disadvantage, but the dogs are making up for it," Burmeister said while receiving his $3,000 in placer gold for being the first musher to reach the halfway point in Cripple on Wednesday.
In Ruby this morning, its dog yard is going to see plenty of moment. Jeff King's 24-hour layover ends at 8:27 a.m. and Sonny Lindner ends his 24 at 7:41 a.m.
Also resting at the checkpoint are Robert Sorlie, Nicolas Petit, Kelly Maixner, Hugh Neff, Mitch Seavey, Ray Redington Jr., Dallas Seavey and Hans Gatt.
Update Thursday night: Race tactic puts Jeff King in front
From Kevin Klott --
Jeff King is known as an innovator, a musher who tinkers with gadgets and showcases them on the grand Iditarod stage. This year's tinkering, however, has nothing to do with sit-down sleds, kennel cabooses or heated handlebars.
King on Thursday unveiled his latest Idita-twist after pushing his team all the way to the Yukon River without taking the mandatory 24-hour layover. He was by no means the first musher to ever accomplish this feat. In fact, Sonny Lindner of Two Rivers also made it to Ruby on Thursday without completing his 24.
Nevertheless, the strategy King and Lindner have employed this year is as notable as it is smart, said four-time champion Lance Mackey.
"People are pushing the envelope a little farther every year," said Mackey, who is sitting out this year's race. "The farther you can go until you take (the 24), the better it will be for the end result."
But are King and Lindner really better off? When their 24s are finished, how long will it take to catch up to Martin Buser and company?
"Whoever wants it is gonna have to earn it," said 1984 Iditarod winner Dean Osmar.
Osmar remembered when a rookie named Doug Swingley and 1989 Iditarod champion Joe Runyan decided to take their long layover in Ruby. The year was 1992 and strategies like that were unorthodox. Their plan, however, didn't get them to Nome first. Martin Buser won his first of four victories that year, Swingley (a four-time winner) finished a career-worst ninth, and Runyan scratched.
"They made one hell of a bold move," Osmar said.
Most recent pushes to the Yukon date back to 1998 when Kotzebue's John Baker took his 24-hour layover in Ruby. In 2001 Linwood Fiedler 24'd in Anvik, the first Yukon River village on the southern route. Jim Lanier and Bill Cotter each did their 24 in Ruby in 2002. And in 2006, Paul Gebhardt traveled all the way to Galena -- 545 miles into the race -- to do his 24.
Here's how each musher's gamble paid off in each of those years: Baker placed 5th, Fiedler 2nd, Lanier 25th, Cotter 27th and Gebhardt 3rd.
This year, King and Lindner's tactic to 24 in Ruby certainly makes sense, Mackey said, considering the hard, fast trail they faced since saying goodbye and good riddance to the nightmarish Farewell Burn.
Mackey predicts the two will split the 135-mile run from Ruby to Kaltag into two runs, take their mandatory eight-hour rest along the Yukon River in Kaltag, and then bolt for Unalakleet.
"At this point in the game, the more rest you have the better you'll be," he said. "Normally people after this point are cutting rest."
A member of the Iditarod Inside camera crew asked King just before Thursday morning if he had ever taken his 24 this late in the race. The 58-year-old Denali Park musher looked halfway asleep; he had just pulled into Ruby after completing a 10-hour, 70-mile run from Cripple.
"I think I did once. At least I stayed here long enough I had to clean the grocery store out of some frozen meat," King said. "But that might have just been for an eight (hour layover). I don't think I have ever 24'd here."
According to Anchorage Daily News archives, King once did an Anvik 24 in 2003. But that year, the race started in Fairbanks, nearly 700 miles upriver on the Yukon.
King said a 24-hour layover in Ruby was his plan from the start.
"This was my first choice because of the weather pattern that Alaska's been having," he told Iditarod Insider. "And the Iron Dog having come through so fast, I was counting on it being good trail and it really was.
"I wanted to give it a try, to not have the dogs take their 24 until they were good and tired. And quite frankly they weren't even remotely tired in Takotna and McGrath."
At this point, if Mackey had to put money down on a winner, he would go with either King or Lindner. But he said it's still too early to count out any of the big dogs.
"I think they're both on the right track," Mackey said. "Martin's got this thing dialed in too. Kelly Maixner is the dark horse this year. He's running a hell of a race. And if you look at the Seavey boys, who play it conservatively and come on strong at the end, no doubt in my mind they'll do that again."
The Yukon River is known for its whiteouts and poor trail conditions. After that stretch mushers face the Bering Sea coast, which can be brutal. That group of eight all arrived between 10 p.m. Thursday and 5:26 a.m. Friday.
Anchorage Daily News