UPDATE 5:15 p.m. Saturday
Casey Grove in Unalakleet --
Arriving to a cheering crowd that included her father from Florida, Aliy Zirkle rolled into town Saturday afternoon to claim her second Gold Coast Award for being the first Iditarod musher to reach the Bering Sea coast.
"This must be where the party is," Zirkle said as children waved "Go Aliy" signs.
Zirkle, the runnerup in the last two races, is setting a blistering pace. The Iditarod leader seldom reaches Unalakleet on a Saturday, much less during daylight hours.
As gold nuggets were poured into a pan -- her prize for being the leader here -- Zirkle said she didn't know she was leading the race until the final eight miles of her run from Kaltag, when she asked a snowmachiner how far ahead Martin Buser was.
"He not in front of you, he's behind you," the snowmachiner told her.
Zirkle said she must have passed Buser while he was taking a break at Old Woman Cabin outside Unalakleet.
Doug Zirkle was among the welcoming committee waiting for Zirkle in bright sunshine. He last saw his daughter at the race's ceremonial start a week ago in Anchorage.
Zirkle said she didn't know how long she would stay at the checkpoint. "I'll get a little rest and see how the rest of the world is going," she said, alluding to the run times of other mushers.
UPDATE 8 am Saturday:
From Kevin Klott --
Martin Buser's chase for Aliy Zirkle -- and his first Iditarod championship in more than a decade -- started at 5:34 this morning when he checked out of Kaltag behind 14 dogs.
The Iditarod legend from Big Lake took off for the Bering Sea coast two hours and 16 minutes after Zirkle. Trying to win his first Gold Coast Award since 2002 -- the last year he won the Iditarod -- Buser is traveling with three more dogs than Zirkle has.
"Up and over the mountains," Buser told Iditarod Insider early Saturday morning. "That's all there's left to do to get on the coast."
Along the way, Buser could pass a resting Zirkle, considering the Two Rivers musher did not rest in Kaltag. Since taking her 24-hour layover in Takotna, Zirkle has been camping outside checkpoints, as opposed to Buser, who prefers the convenience and comfort of villages.
Buser's second-place position is far from comfortable. Charging behind the 55-year-old musher is a young, up-and-coming musher who is also in the hunt to win the $2,500 in gold nuggets waiting for the first musher in Unalakleet.
Nicolas Petit, who finished a career-best sixth last year, left Kaltag at 7:14 a.m. with 14 dogs. The Girdwood musher appears to have the fastest team among the three. He averaged 11.51 mph on the Nulato-to-Kaltag stretch, 0.54 mph faster than Zirkle and 0.91 mph faster than Buser.
UPDATE 6:30 a.m. Saturday:
From Kevin Klott --
The race to the Bering Sea coast is officially underway this morning as Aliy Zirkle and Martin Buser jockey for position to win the coveted Gold Coast Award in Unalakleet.
Zirkle pulled into Kaltag at 3:11 a.m., an hour and 11 minutes after Buser. She stayed for just seven minutes before heading west behind a string of 11 dogs.
Willow's Dallas Seavey arrived third at 4:56 a.m., but the 2012 Iditarod winner will have to stay put in Kaltag to serve his mandatory eight-hour rest. Nenana's Aaron Burmeister arrived 30 minutes after Seavey and three and a half hours behind Buser, the four-time Iditarod champion from Big Lake who hasn't won since 2002.
Zirkle's dash to the coast not only catapulted her back into the lead but also put some serious pressure on Buser, who is dealing with a sprained ankle as well as a dislocated pinkie finger, according to KNOM radio in Nome.
"That team's got a lot of zip in it and a lot of speed," said Iditarod Insider race commentator Bruce Lee about Zirkle in Kaltag. "She's nibbling away at Martin in bits and pieces."
After finishing her eight-hour rest in Galena on Friday, Zirkle zipped down the Yukon to Nulato and rested there for about three hours before heading to Kaltag, the final stop along the Yukon River.
Cutting rest early this morning in Kaltag suggests she is planning to give her team a break somewhere along the Kaltag Portage, most likely the Tripod Flats Cabin. The peaceful winter haven -- built out of local logs in the 1990s -- breaks up the 85-mile run between Kaltag and Unalakleet.
Getting to Unalakleet first is critical for mushers. Besides banking $2,500 in gold nuggets, the leader is established as a top contender to win the Last Great Race.
The winner of the Gold Coast Award has gone on to win the Iditarod 76 percent (16 of 21) of the time since 1993. Buser has won the award four times (1988, 1994, 1997, 2002). Every year but 1988 led to victory. He finished third in 1988.
Zirkle, a 44-year-old from Two Rivers, is looking to capture her first Iditarod victory and become the first woman to win the championship since Susan Butcher in 1990.
Anchorage Daily News / adn.com