Update, 11 a.m. Saturday, March 15: Rookie musher Elliot Anderson of Big Lake scratched at 1:01 a.m. today, according to a release from the Iditarod Trail Committee. "Anderson had left Elim at 9:00 a.m. Friday morning with 15 dogs in harness after nearly a six hour rest there. Trail sweeps made contact with Anderson Friday evening on the trail on the way to Golovin. Anderson passed by Golovin, eventually turned around, and scratched." Three mushers remain on the trail, all rookies: Monica Zappa of Kasilof, Lisbet Norris of Willow, and Marcelle Fressineau of Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. Iditarod live tracking showed all three closing in on the second-to-last checkpoint, Safety, Saturday morning, with Fressineau in the red lantern position.
Update, 7:55 a.m. Tuesday, March 11: Not quite four hours after his son Dallas arrived under the burled arch to claim victory in the 2014 Iditarod (read our full coverage of the finish here), Mitch Seavey's team of 11 dogs slid to a finish on Front Street in Nome. The elder Seavey finished at 7:39 a.m., for a time of 8 days, 17 hours, 39 minutes and 40 seconds. Mitch Seavey wasn't in serious contention during the final leg of the race, but that time is still good enough to beat the previous course record, set by John Baker on the Souther Route in 2011. This year's course was, in spite of -- or perhaps because of -- its dangerous conditions, an exceptionally fast one. At one point on Monday there was talk that as many as eight mushers might best Baker's now defunct record. But a storm that brought high winds and reduced visibility to the trail -- and knocked then-leader Jeff King out of the race -- has slowed the remaining top mushers down.
Update, 12:15 a.m. Tuesday, March 11: Joe Runyan at the Iditarod Insider has greater detail into what may have happened to musher Jeff King on the way to Safety, while Aliy Zirkle -- who passed King on the way to the final checkpoint before Nome -- was holed up while rough weather battered the southern Seward Peninsula. Zirkle checked into Safety just before 11 p.m. Monday, but still hadn't left an hour later. King, meanwhile, had reportedly been blown off the trail and his team had become tangled in driftwood. King was able to untangle his dogs, but was then apparently unable to get them moving again, according to Runyan, who added that King and his dogs had been "wadded up" for an hour and a half along the trail. Aliy reportedly didn't even know that she'd passed King, but would have seen upon signing into Safety that she'd beaten him there. Runyan says that for the time being, the leaders of the Iditarod appear to be "shut down" due to the "legendary and life threatening" winds that roll into Nome. The last stretch of trail is reportedly even more treacherous.
Update, 11:30 p.m. Monday, March 10: The dog team of musher Aily Zirkle was into the Safety checkpoint at 10:57 p.m. and marching toward Nome while everyone in that Bering Sea city was trying to sort out what had happened along Safety Sound. Somewhere out there, the dog team of Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race leader Jeff King from Denali Park had stalled. Much of the trail along the sea coast from the foot of the Topkok Hills for about 10 miles to Safety is glare ice. King was reported fishtailing on his sled behind his team as the group sped toward the Iditarod finish line just before dark. Whether King was hurt or if his dogs had grown tired of the conditions and finally called it a day wasn't clear. King was also reported to be stopped in an area known as the "blowhole," notorious for its high winds and known to halt teams' progress. Whatever the case, the 44-year-old Zirkle had moved into the Iditarod lead and appeared on her way to victory after two disappointing years as runner-up. The story was unfolding by the minute. King's girlfriend, Ellen Donoghue, reportedly appeared crestfallen and distraught at the convention center in Nome while King remained stopped on the trail. She reportedly left the building with longtime Iditarod volunteer and employee Joanne Potts calling after her to "Stay cool, Ellen. Stay cool."
Update, 10:20 p.m. Monday, March 10: Aliy Zirkle appears to have caught up to Jeff King, who had nearly an hour lead upon leaving the checkpoint of White Mountain Monday afternoon. According to the GPS trackers carried by each Iditarod musher, King appeared to have stopped a few miles outside of the checkpoint of Safety, while Zirkle continued a brisk pace of more than 8 mph, according to the tracker Monday night. No word on why King had stopped, but indications seemed to be that his tracker was working. Zirkle passed him at about 10:20 p.m.
Update, 10:15 p.m. Monday, March 10: Musher Kelly Maixner of Big Lake scratched out of the 2014 Iditarod on Monday evening outside the community of Golovin. Maixner reportedly decided to stop his race after fierce crosswinds made progress difficult for him and his team. He and his team were transported to Golovin and would be spending the night there, with plans to be transported to Nome if weather permits Tuesday. Maixner, an unheralded musher who has never finished better than 30th in the Iditarod, led this year's race for a time early on before fading out of contention farther and farther down the trail from Rohn.
Update, 8:25 a.m. Monday, March 10: Aliy Zirkle arrived at White Mountain at 7:59 a.m., in second place and 57 minutes behind Iditarod leader Jeff King. That means King will have a 57-minute head start heading into the final dash to Safety and on to Nome, once mushers depart White Mountain this evening after completing their mandatory eight-hour layovers. King stretched his lead to that 57-minute margin from just an eight-minute lead over Zirkle leaving Elim. The third-place musher, Dallas Seavey, arrived in White Mountain an hour and 49 minutes behind Zirkle.
Update, 7:30 a.m. Monday, March 10: Jeff King reached the White Mountain checkpoint at 7:02 a.m. Monday. Because White Mountain is the site of a final mandatory eight-hour layover, that means the Denali Park musher will be the first of the diminishing group of teams still in contention to leave for the finals segments of the race from White Mountain to Safety and then on to Nome. Aliy Zirkle remained in second place, with Dallas Seavey, who put forth a strong late run, in third, according to the race's GPS trackers.
Update, 5:20 a.m. Monday March 10: Separated by only a few miles, Jeff King and Aliy Zirkle led the dwindling pack of contenders on the stretch of Iditarod trail between Elim and White Mountain in the early hours of Monday morning. Both King and Zirkle spent a bit more than an hours resting in Elim on the Norton Sound coast before heading toward White Mountain, where they will spend a final mandatory eight-hour layover. Dallas Seavey, meanwhile, skipped rest in Elim, staying just eight minutes in a bid to narrow the gap between him and the two frontrunners. Martin Buser and Mitch Seavey also left Elim early Monday morning. Once teams reach White Mountain, they’ll take their eight-hour rest, and then have less than 100 miles of trail left to go, much of it along the Bering Sea coastline, before they reach Nome.
Update, 8:45 p.m. Sunday, March 9: When will the Iditarod winner pass beneath the burled arch that serves as the finish line on Front Street in Nome? Though there’s still racing left to do, here’s an estimate: In his record-setting run of 2011, champion John Baker left Koyuk, about 170 miles miles from the finish line, at 2:48 a.m. Monday. He crossed the finish line at 9:46 a.m. Tuesday. Fast forward to this year. Jeff King was the first musher out of Koyuk at 5:50 p.m. Sunday, or about nine hours earlier. If that margin holds up, expect a champion early Tuesday morning, well before dawn. Much like in 2011, when Baker of Kotzebue held off a charging Ramey Smyth of Willow by about an hour, this Iditarod finish looks to be hotly contested, with three or four racers still in contention. Whoever wins, it will take a superior effort -- not a leisurely stroll to Nome.
Update, 3:15 p.m. Sunday, March 9: Though Jeff King left the checkpoint of Shaktoolik 48 minutes behind race leader Aliy Zirkle, that gap had narrowed substantially by the time the two hit the next checkpoint of Koyuk, with the four-time Iditarod champ King checking in a mere one minute behind the two-time runner-up Zirkle, who arrived into Koyuk at 2:07 p.m. The two were more comfortably ahead of Martin Buser, the third musher to leave Shaktoolik Sunday morning, and a cluster of serious contenders, including Sonny Lindner, Mitch Seavey, Aaron Burmeister and Dallas Seavey. The race may come down to Zirkle and King duking it out for first and second place, and a dogfight for third among the other tightly-packed followers. Joe Runyan, with the Iditarod Insider, notes that the trail remains mostly icy near the Norton Sound coast, though patches of bare ground are beginning to re-emerge, after racers enjoyed better snow cover along the Yukon River trek to the coast.
Update, 8:30 a.m. Sunday, March 9: Race leader Aliy Zirkle has maintained her lead out of Shaktoolik, departing the checkpoint at 7:12 a.m. Sunday with a 48-minute head start on Jeff King. She'd arrived just a few hours before, and the other frontrunners were mostly resting in the Norton Sound community of about 270, including Sonny Lindner, Martin Buser, and Dallas Seavey. King, a four-time Iditarod champion, had managed to shave a little precious time off of Zirkle's lead upon leaving Shaktoolik, and was also able to leapfrog Buser -- another four-time champ -- for the second-place position when he left Unalakleet Saturday night. According to Iditarod Insider, Zirkle appeared to have hurt herself on the ride in to Shaktoolik, and was limping while taking care of her dogs at the checkpoint. King followed her out at 8 a.m., with Buser taking up the chase a half-hour later. Lindner left at 9:08 a.m. Seavey, the 2012 champion, moved closer to the front by making the run from Unalakleet to Shaktoolik about 1 mph faster than the other top contenders.
Update, 10:30 p.m., Saturday, March 8: Aliy Zirkle left Unalakleet at 8:48 p.m., giving her a 70-minute head start over the only other musher to leave Unalakleet so far. Come-from-behind winners out of Unalakleet are rare, and they usually leave within minutes of the race's then-leader. Dallas Seavey came from six minutes back in 2012 after Aaron Burmeister from Nome bolted out of the checkpoint. Zirkle, who was first to the Bering Sea coast as she is this year, was almost half an hour back when they left and never caught up. Four-time champ Lance Mackey from Fairbanks was the second musher into the checkpoint in 2007, about an hour behind four-time champ Jeff King from Denali Park. But Mackey was only nine minutes behind Paul Gebhardt from Kasilof, the leader out of Unalakleet that year. Mackey passed Gebhardt and pulled away up the coast. King was the fourth musher out, 45 minutes back. He ended up fifth that year behind four-time champ Buser from Big Lake, who'd been only two minutes behind Mackey when a gang of four -- King, Mackey, Buser and Gebhardt -- hit the coast within minutes of each other. Buser this year finds himself almost an hour behind two-time Iditarod runner-up Zirkle with King almost three hours back. Three hours is an almost impossible amount of time to make up, but... The finishing order in 2007 was Mackey, Gebhardt, Zack Steer (now a race analyst for Alaska Disaptch), Buser and King. Where did Steer come from? He was almost five and a half hours behind King on arrival at the coast, and still about four and a half hours behind King when he left. But he passed both Buser and King, and finished more than two hours in front of King. Steer illustrated that while it's hard for mushers to come from hours back to challenge for the lead, it's not impossible. Then again, chasers almost never catch a leader with hours on the pack. Steer caught teams that were faltering in part because they were tired and in part because, having seen the race slip away, some contenders -- both mushers and dogs -- seem to just quit racing as hard. Overall, the history of the Iditarod is pretty clear on one thing: Any musher seriously interested in challenging the leader out of Unalakleet for victory better be out of Unalakleet pretty hot on Zirkle's heels. Those who dally have usually already conceded and resorted to racing for position. Second pays a lot more than third, third a lot more than fourth and so forth.
Update, 9:05 p.m., Saturday, March 8: Girdwood musher Nicolas Petit, bib No. 29, has scratched, according to a press release from the Iditarod Trail Committee. Petit made the decision to scratch at 6:45 p.m., approximately 11 miles outside the checkpoint of Unalakleet on the Norton Sound coast. "Petit indicated to Race Officials that his team was fatigued and that he felt it was best that he call it a race and try again next year," the ITC said in its release. A team of snowmachiners who passed Petit on the trail into Unalakleet reported seeing the musher stopped along the trail with his team, looking frustrated. Upon arrival in Unalakleet, a harried-looking Petit was taken directly to the airport, along with his team. His dogs appeared to be tired but in good health, although Petit was heard to mention something to race vets about possibly having fed them some bad horse meat. He did not take questions from the media. Petit, who has raced in three prior Iditarods, was the 2011 rookie of the year. He finished sixth last year and until he scratched was running among a lineup of competitive mushers near the front of the pack. Earlier this season, he placed second in the Copper Basin 300, coming in just seven minutes behind winner Allen Moore.
Update, 6:55 p.m., Saturday, March 8: The 2000 census counted 482 people living in the unincorporated area of Alaska homes along Chena Hot Springs Road called Two Rivers. Two of them are among the top three mushers in the world's best-known long-distance sled dog race. And the Iditarod is shaping up as a showdown on the Seward Peninsula to the finish line in Nome. Two-time runner-up Aliy Zirkle leads Martin Buser by less than an hour into Unalakleet and Two Rivers neighbor Sonny Lindner, 64, is just 90 minutes behind. Another dozen mushers are between Kaltag and Unalakleet. Zirkle, behind 11 dogs, took 13 hours, 21 minutes to make the 85-mile run from Kaltag through an area known as the Kaltag Portage. Buser took about 12 hours and Lindner blazed in nine hours, 37 minutes. But most mushers stop for a rest during the long run, and Zirkle clearly did. According to the SP Kennel website, which Zirkle runs with her husband Allen Moore: "She ... stopped at Tripod Flats, about 30 miles out of Kaltag. It is a quiet cabin, out of the hustle and bustle of the Kaltag checkpoint ... This is one of Aliy's favorite parts of the trail. The Kaltag Portage has been traveled for thousands of years, connecting the Athabaskan Indians of Interior Alaska and the Inupiat people of coastal Alaska."
Update, 5:18 p.m., Saturday, March 8: Aliy Zirkle maintained her lead into the checkpoint of Unalakleet, earning herself the Wells Fargo Gold Coast Award, which comes with $2,500 in gold nuggets and the addition of her name to a perpetual trophy that lives at the Wells Fargo branch in Nome. Zirkle previously won the Gold Coast Award in 2012, after which she went on to finish second in the race. Just 52 minutes later, Martin Buser of Big Lake checked in with 14 dogs in harness, three more than Zirkle. And a whopping 14 other mushers are enroute from Kaltag to Unalakleet.
Update, 3:50 p.m., Saturday, March 8: A long string of mushers is closing in on Unalakleet, led by Aliy Zirkle, who was cruising along toward the Norton Sound coast Saturday ahead of some of the same leaders who have been hopping around the top 10 for days: Martin Buser, Nicolas Petit, Sonny Lindner, and further back, Jeff King and Aaron Burmeister. The improved trail mushers have been enjoying is now beginning to better resemble the rugged, rocky trail that characterized the first few days of the race. Past the Old Woman cabin, which sits approximately 50 miles beyond Kaltag and 35 miles from Unalakleet, the snow begins to dwindle, replaced by icy patches and stretches of bare ground. The weather is uncharacteristically warm as well; late Saturday afternoon, the temperature in Unalakleet was climbing near 40 degrees. Due to the warm weather and lack of snow and ice, race organizers are anticipating some reroutes beyond Unalakleet, where the trail turns north along Norton Sound.
Update, 10:50 a.m., Saturday, March 8: By mid-morning Saturday, seven mushers formed a conga line of sled-dog racers making an early push on the 80-mile trail from Kaltag to the Norton Sound coastline at Unalakleet. Aliy Zirkle got the charge started at 3:18 a.m. and Martin Buser of Big Lake and Nicolas Petit of Girdwood followed within four hours. Then came a four-pack of top mushers with six championships between them, all leaving within less than an hour of each other -- Sonny Lindner, the 64-year-old from Two Rivers; Jeff King, the four-time champion from Denali Park; Mitch Seavey, the defending champion; and Kelly Maixner, the suprising pediatric dentist with speed. By 9:30 a.m., all seven were headed west. Beware of King, who posted the fasted run between the Nulato and Kaltag checkpoints, averaging nearly 13 mph. That's about 2 mph faster than Zirkle and Buser and exceptionally quick for any team this late in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race. How much King can hold his speed in the hilly terrain between Kaltag and Unalakleet is one of several unanswered questions.
Update, 8:30 a.m., Saturday, March 8: As the first hint of sunlight hit the western Alaska coast Saturday morning, Two Rivers musher Aliy Zirkle moved ever closer to the Norton Sound town of Unalakleet, aiming to open a gap between her team of 11 dogs and a chase group full of former champions. Zirkle left the final Yukon River checkpoint of Kaltag at 3:18 a.m. to begin the 80-mile push to the Norton Sound coastline. She stopped in Kaltag just seven minutes before pulling her snow hook and heading for Unalakleet -- though she may well decide to stop and rest enroute. Four-time champion Martin Buser of Big Lake, who beat Zirkle to Kaltag by 71 minutes, stayed there nearly four hours before giving chase at 5:34 a.m. Nicolas Petit of Girdwood followed at 7:14 a.m. A father-son pair mushers who've relegated Zirkle to second-place in the last two Iditarods -- Mitch and Dallas Seavey -- had ground to make up as the race neared its home stretch. Dallas Seavey, the 2012 champion, was running fourth into Kaltag, arriving at 4:56 a.m. But he needed to take his mandatory eight-hour Yukon River rest there and, consequently, won't be able to leave for Unalakleet until nearly 1 p.m. Defending champion Mitch Seavey, sitting in 10th place, was still on his way to Kaltag as dawn broke but, unlike his son, Mitch has already taken his eight-hour rest. Two-time champion Robert Sorlie of Norway was in eighth place Saturday morning, reaching Kaltag at 7:19 a.m.
Update, 8:30 p.m., Friday, March 7: The musher who led the early portion of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was back on top as the sun dipped toward the horizon on the Yukon River Friday night. Four-time champion Martin Buser of Big Lake pulled into the Nulato checkpoint at 5:38 p.m. behind 14 dogs. But his advantage was slipping. Sonny Lindner, the 64-year-old veteran racing several dogs from the kennel of four-time champion Lance Mackey, pulled in 49 minutes later. But unlike Buser, Lindner had yet to take his mandatory eight-hour rest at one checkpoint along the Yukon River. Perhaps the bigger threat was Aliy Zirkle, the runner-up each of the last two Iditarods. She is two hours, nine minutes behind Buser, but her average speed on the frozen river during the 37-mile trip from Galena was nearly 1 mph faster than Buser's. Just one more checkpoint remains on the Yukon. It's a 47-mile push to Kaltag before the race turns west for Norton Sound coast. Among the mushers heading towards Nulato Friday night were two-time champion Robert Sorlie of Norway, four-time champion Jeff King of Denali Park and rapidly improving Nicolas Petit of Girdwood.
Update, 3:20 p.m. Friday, March 7: Willow musher Ramey Smyth has scratched from the Iditarod for the first time in an Iditarod career dating back to 1994. Smyth, who owns a second and third place finishes over the past three years, pulled out of the race in Ruby. He said his dog team was ill and only 12 animals remained in harness. The former Kuskokwim 300 champion has finished the Iditarod 17 consecutive years, with five top-10 finishes in his last six races. He's known as a particularly fast finisher who has won the award for the fastest time from Safety to Nome eight times. His father Bud Smyth, is an Iditarod pioneer. His brother Cim remains in the race and was running in 25th place on Friday afternoon.
Update, 9:25 a.m. Friday, March 7: Earlier in the race, it was widely reported how musher Newton Marshall of Jamaica helped injured Scott Janssen, who’d suffered a broken foot on the trail about 40 miles from the Nikolai checkpoint, and may have saved the life of the Anchorage racer known as the Mushin’ Mortician. Janssen was flown out on an Air Force Blackhawk helicopter for medical attention. Iditarod Insider described what happened to Janssen’s dogs after the boss was rescued: “Jeff Praille is part of the (Iditarod) Insider film crew. The Insider guys … came upon the accident scene. After Newton left, the ball was in their court. Jeff being a musher himself hooked the 15 dogs to his snowmachine and than drove them out to Farewell Lake, the first place a plane could land to pick them up. Keep in mind that he is towing a huge sled with camera gear and that the trail was pretty rough to begin with. Now attach 15 eager sled dogs to your machine with a leader who questions your authority. Then, having to drive over the (Farewell) Burn and onto Farewell Lakes, which were mostly glare ice. Jeff sure had some fun on this trip.”
Update, 7:15 a.m., Friday, March 7: Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers was the first Iditarod musher to reach the Yukon River checkpoint of Galena, arriving at 6:10 a.m. Friday. That earned her a fat $1,000 check and 25 pounds of canned salmon and smoked strips from Bristol Bay Native Corporation. Though the 14 dogs in her string might beg to differ, Zirkle will not carry the 25 pounds of fish she won with her down the trail. The Two Rivers musher has has yet to take her eight-hour layover on the Yukon River, which she could do at Galena or the upcoming Nulato or Kaltag checkpoints. Meanwhile, Aaron Burmeister and Robert Sorlie both left Ruby Friday morning, chasing Zirkle and Martin Buser -- who left a few hours after Zirkle. Like Buser, Sorlie has taken his mandatory eight-hour stop. Burmeister has not.
Update, 5 a.m., Friday, March 7: With the halfway point past, things begin to tighten among the teams at the front of the Iditarod. Aliy Zirkle left the Yukon River village checkpoint of Ruby a little after midnight Friday morning to take the lead as the race heads down the Yukon. Just two and a half hours later, Martin Buser followed her out of Ruby. Unlike Zirkle, though, Buser has taken his mandatory eight-hour layover as well. Meanwhile, Jeff King and Sonny Lindner, who were the first to arrive in Ruby at 6:41 a.m. and 7:41 a.m., respectively, were sitting out the final hours of their 24-hour layover there Friday morning. They’re the last among the mushers anywhere near contention to take that mandatory break. Five other contenders were resting in Ruby, too, early Friday morning -- Robert Sorlie, Nicolas Petit, Kelly Maixner, Hugh Neff and Mitch Seavey -- and a whopping 20 teams were on the trail there from Cripple, numbering among them still more former champions and strong racers.
Update, 8:15 a.m. Thursday, March 6: Welcome to the Yukon River. Four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King of Denali Park drove his team of 14 dogs into Ruby at 6:41 a.m. Thursday, followed an hour later by Sonny Lindner of Two Rivers, the first two mushers to reach the mighty Yukon River. The two veterans, with a combined age of 122 years, are expected to take their 24-hour mandatory rest at the Athabascan town. As the first musher to reach the Yukon, King earns a feast prepared by Millennium Hotel chefs. But his advantage is an illusion. Just 70 miles behind, in sixth-place, is Martin Buser, who's resting in Cripple with 15 dogs still pulling. Expect Buser to surge into the lead later Thursday as King and Lindner pause for a 24-hour break. And in seventh place is surprising Kelly Maixner, who, like Buser, took his 24-hour rest back in the Nikolai checkpoint and has been moving up while other mushers rest. A press release from the Iditarod describes the meal King will get from the Millenium Hotel, prepared by Executive Chef Bobby Sidro: "The Millennium Alaskan Hotel First Musher to the Yukon Award is a five-course meal with Alaskan Sablefish & Blue Mussel Stew, followed by Red King Crab Cajun Bruschetta with cream cheese, chives, shallots, garlic and special seasonings. The third course consists of Baby Arugula & Smoked Spotted Shrimp Salad including toasted pine nuts, sliced avocado, grated parmesan cheese, cherry tomatoes, alfalfa sprouts and champagne vinaigrette dressing. The entrée is Peppercorn Crusted Filet Mignon & Fried Oysters on a cabernet sauce with sockeye salmon lox and caviar potato pancakes, baby carrots and zucchini flowers. For dessert Roasted Pear Crème Brulee Tart with cream, flour, sugar, and vanilla bean on a tart shell with roasted pear toppings. Wine and champagne pairings accompany each course."
Update, 5:15 a.m. Thursday, March 6: Jeff King led the Iditarod our of Cripple Wednesday evening, leaving the halfway checkpoint at 8:30 p.m. followed about 40 minutes later by Sonny Lindner. The two were the only mushers to have departed the checkpoint. But Martin Buser -- the first among mushers who’ve taken their mandatory 24-hour layover -- arrived in Cripple at 3:46 a.m. Thursday. (King hasn't yet taken his 24-hour stop, telling Alaska Dispatch's Suzanna Caldwell "You don't take halftime after the first quarter.") Buser leads a pack of more than a dozen mushers who’ve all completed their 24-hour rest and have since departed Ophir.
Aliy Zirkle, who took her 24-hour layover in Takotna went out a little early, but it wasn't because of her antsy dog team. According to race judges in Takotna, a bad “master list” of all adjusted 24-hour layover times was sent out after the race start. But somewhere somebody got it wrong, and about a half dozen mushers had incorrect departure times -- all off by about six minutes. Luckily, a race judge caught it before Robert Sorlie went out, but not before Zirkle did. That doesn't mean Zirkle will get to keep those extra minutes -- the difference will be added to Zirkle's mandatory 8-hour rest she has to take at a Yukon River checkpoint.
Update, 6:15 p.m., Wednesday, March 5: When does the fastest elapsed time relegate a musher to second or third place? When you're an Iditarod racer who's one of the final mushers to leave the start line in Willow. Sonny Lindner of Two Rivers fit the bill on Wednesday when he pulled into the remote Cripple checkpoint at 4:40 p.m., an hour and 14 minutes after Aaron Burmeister of Nome, the first to arrive. Burmeister, wearing a brace to support a bum knee, claimed $3,000 in gold nuggets for arriving first. But because Burmeister was the 22nd musher to leave the Willow start line on Sunday-- and Lindner was the 69th -- Burmeister had an 84-minute head start on this Iditarod (time differences are adjusted after mushers take their 24-hour layovers). Although Burmeister beat Lindner to the checkpoint by 74 minutes, his trail time since the Willow start is actually 10 minutes longer. Lindner may be able to claim a moral victory, but Burmeister gets the loot. On the other hand, Lindner left the previous checkpoint of Ophir 1 hour, 50 minutes ahead of Burmeister, and his dawdling pace allowed both Burmeister and four-time champion Jeff King of Denali Park to pass him en route. Lindner took 13 hours, 40 minutes to cover the 73 miles, while Burmeister made the trip in 10 hours, 36 minutes, despite carrying his 76-pound lead dog in the basket for five hours, according to Joe Runyan of the Iditarod website. Still, Burmeister was happy. “Really pleased with the dogs," he told Runyan. "These 12 are really solid, working beautifully, eating, resting." King, the second musher into Cripple, was sizzling, needing just 9 hours, 15 minutes to make the trip. Beyond the gold nuggets, the value of winning the halfway award is questionable. Last year's winner, Lance Mackey, finished 19th in Nome. In 2012, Jim Lanier of Anchorage took the halfway award, and he wound up 33rd.
Update, 8:25 a.m. Wednesday, March 5: A dozen down. Ellen Halverson, 53, of Wasilla on Wednesday became the 12th musher to scratch from the Iditarod during the first half of the ultramarathon to Nome. Halverson pulled out at the Rohn checkpoint due to "a severely damaged sled," a problem that dozens of mushers have faced in the rugged, snowless terrain on the north side of the Alaska Range. Halverson also noted she had "an abundance of caution due to the experiences of the teams ahead of me.” The Wasilla musher was racing her fifth Iditarod, and this is the third time she's scratched. In her other two races, she won the Red Lantern prize as the last musher to Nome. With that leaves just 57 of the 69 starters on the trail -- many of them injured but pushing on. Kristy Berington of Kasilof has both elbows banged up after being dragged behind her sled. Her sister Anna has a banged up knee and swollen hip. Charley Benja of Addison, Ill., has black-and-blue shins from his knees down.
Update, 5:45 a.m. Wednesday, March 5: Sonny Lindner was back in the lead heading out of Ophir toward Cripple and the halfway mark at 3 a.m. Wednesday. He was followed by Aaron Burmeister nearly two hours later at 4:50 a.m. Nicolas Petit, who arrived in Ophir at 11:20 p.m. Tuesday and Jeff King, who checked in at 2:10 a.m. Wednesday, are still at the checkpoint, as is Norwegian Joar Leifseth Ulsom, who arrived at 5:16 a.m. According to SP Kennel's blog, Aliy Zirkle, who led the race into Takotna, has declared her 24 stop there (though as the blog notes, she could change her mind and take the stop later). Meanwhile, Martin Buser left Nikolai at 2:17 a.m. Wednesday, followed by Kelly Maixner at 4. The two mushers completed their 24-hour stop there, and are the only mushers in the race to have done so thus far.
Update, 9:45 p.m. Tuesday, March 4: Musher Scott Janssen, popularly known as the "mushing mortician," may have broken his leg after a fall on the trail between the checkpoints of Rohn and Nikolai. According to a post at Janssen's Facebook page, Janssen was unable to stand up after the fall. "About 45 minutes after the crash Newton Marshall came by and got him to a safety shelter located between Rohn and Nikolai," said the post, which went up shortly after 8 p.m. Tuesday. "Scott has pressed his rescue button and is awaiting the Iditarod rescue." Janssen was sitting at mile 172, according to his GPS tracker, and Marshall had continued on down the trail. The 52-year-old Janssen is a two-time Iditarod finisher, coming in 38th in 2012.
Update, 5:20 p.m. Tuesday, March 4: The Iditarod trail continued to exact a stiff toll on the 62 mushers still pushing towards Nome. Veteran musher Karen Ramstead, a five-time Iditarod finisher, broke her left hand going through the Dalzell Gorge and may scratch, according to eyewitness accounts who said it was "swollen grotesquely" and bleeding. Ramstead of Perryvale, Alberta, Canada, is well known for running a team of purebred Siberian Huskies. Also, Gus Guenther, a carpenter from Clam Gulch, broke his ankle and scratched at Rohn. This was Guenther’s third Iditarod and the first time he’s pulled out before the finish line. Later Monday, Jan Steves, 57, of Edmonds, Wash., became the seventh musher to scratch one checkpoint earlier at Rainy Pass. Steves, the winner of the Red Lantern as the last place finisher two years ago, also scratched last year.
Update, 4:00 p.m. Tuesday, March 4: Musher Jake Berkowitz of Big Lake, a three-time Iditarod finisher, will scratch after he was forced to activate the help button on his GPS tracker, according to reports from the trail and the Facebook page of Berkowitz's Apex Kennel. Berkowitz was reportedly on his way to Nikolai on a snowmachine after his sled was damaged beyond repair on the largely-snowless Farewell Burn between the checkpoints of Rohn and Nikolai. His team will reportedly have to be driven in by someone else and a replacement sled. Berkowitz had his best finish last year, finishing eighth. He left Rohn shortly after 1 a.m. Tuesday.
Update, 2:00 p.m. Tuesday, March 4: Musher John Dixon of Fairbanks lost a dog on Tuesday trying to navigate the steep and treacherous Dalzell Gorge. Dixon, 40, said that on the first steep downhill a 1-year-old in his team, Pete, "flipped out" and slipped out of his harness and collar. Dixon's team was moving fast, and he tried stopping to find Pete, but was unable to the dog and was worried about taking care of his 13 other dogs still in harness and raring to go. Luckily for Dixon, Pete was found quickly by trail savior Colton Perrins, who also helped lead DeeDee Jonrowe's team safely out of the gorge Monday evening. Pete seemed a little shaken, but content as he rejoined his team Tuesday in Rohn. It's unclear whether Dixon, returning to run in his first Iditarod since 2000, will continue back down the trail with him or not.
Update, 1:10 p.m. Tuesday, March 4: Retired musher Joe Runyan, a former Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion, was raving about how well Martin Buser's dogs did on the rough and largely snowless 75 miles of trail from Rohn to Nikolai. "Incredibly, Martin arrived with 16 dogs in harness,'' Runyan raved on the race website. Note to Joe: The dogs don't really care about trail conditions. They're as happy to run on dirt as on snow, as every musher who trains with them in front of a four-wheeler during much of the season knows. In fact, in some ways, the dogs might prefer the barren ground. It means they have to go slower, and as every runner -- canine, equine, human -- knows, slower is easier than faster. The drivers might play a bigger role than in most Iditarods. The 56-year-old Buser from Big Lake, the first musher into Nikolai, was limping around on an injured ankle he sprained on the way the the checkpoint. It is a comparatively small thing, but it compromises his ability to help the team by pushing on the back of the sled. And in today's highly competitive Iditarod, small things can add up to big differences by the finish line in Nome.
Update, 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 4: Mushers had begun leaving Nikolai Tuesday, with Sonny Lindner, Hugh Neff, Aliy Zirkle and Nicolas Petit all leaving within an hour of each other, in that order, beginning at 11:20 a.m. Meanwhile, some other mushers were still taking their mandatory 24-hour layovers in the community, with Martin Buser, Mike Williams Jr. and Aaron Burmeister all declaring they would take their long breaks in the Kuskokwim River community.
Meanwhile, Musher Mike Santos has scratched in Rohn, citing "personal reasons" according to a release from race officials. Santos made the decision to scratch just after 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, after having pulled into Rohn just before 5 a.m. Santos, 45, is originally from Massachusetts but now lives in Cantwell. He's now started the Iditarod three times, also scratching in 2011 -- his rookie year -- and finishing 34th in 2012. He sat out the 2013 race.
Update, 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, March 4: Jim Lanier, age 73 of Chugiak, has made the decision to scratch at the Rainy Pass checkpoint, citing a leg injury. Lanier, the oldest musher in this year's race, has competed in 16 Iditarods since 1979, and never scratched prior to this year's race. His best finish was when he came 18th place in 2004. Lanier's wife had reported previously that the musher had suffered an injury to his Achilles tendon, though Lanier didn't make the decision to scratch until 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, nearly a full day after he pulled into Rainy Pass just after 2 p.m. on Monday.
Update, 9:10 a.m. Tuesday, March 4: DeeDee Jonrowe has scratched, along with fellow veteran Linwood Fiedler, according to Iditarod officials. The news came in a press release. Both mushers were in Rohn when they made the decision, and both blamed their experience in the Dalzell Gorge: "Jonrowe indicated to checkpoint personnel that she was scratching from the race because she was 'beat up physically in the Dalzell Gorge.' Fiedler cited 'physical injury from driving the Dalzell Gorge passage,' the release read, in part. Meanwhile, the wife of veteran racer Jim Lanier (Anna Bondarenko, a fellow Iditarod veteran) posted on Facebook that a doctor and trail official urged the 73-year-old, currently at Rainy Pass, to scratch after he suffered an apparent injury to his Achilles tendon. "Jim called from Rainy Pass to tell me that he hurt his ankle going down the steps. Something popped or snapped and he could not put any weight on it," the post reads in part. "Orthopedic surgeon (who just happened to be at the checkpoint) and a race official strongly recommended Jim to scratch. Having never scratched from the Iditarod, Jim is agonizing over this decision. Jimmy and I told him that he is our hero and we love him no matter what. He already proved many times that he is tough and can persevere through the pain. (He had FINISHED one Iditarod with a broken ankle.)"
Update, 8:40 a.m. Tuesday, March 4: Seventy-three-year-old Jim Lanier, a retired Chugiak doctor who look and acts like a man 20 years younger, was at Perrin's Rainy Pass Lodge Monday night enjoying a glass of wine, nursing injuries and trying to decide whether he wished to continue in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Thirty-five miles on down the trail on the north side of the Alaska Range, 60-year-old DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow was doing the same at Rohn, a one-log-cabin outpost not nearly as comfortable as the lodge but set in the grandeur of the Terra Cotta Mountains at the confluence of the Tatina and West Fork Kuskokwim rivers. Gorgeous scenery the two checkpoints share in common every year. And in a year of little snow along the Iditarod Trail, both are collecting tales of woes, although in Jonrowe's case the might be tales of "no whoa.''
Three times coming down through the Dalzell Gorge to Rohn on Monday she lost her team after getting bucked around on a dog sled running across roots, dirty, boulders, rocks and ice. After the last time, part of the team got away and was caught by Alaska Dispatch photographer Loren Holmes and Colton Perrin from the Perrin's Lodge as it came scooting out of the Dalzell trail onto the Tatina River ice. When Jonrowe finally showed up, Holmes and Perrin helped her collect all the dogs, get the team back together and head for the checkpoint. Race officials there said they wouldn't disqualify for her for accepting "outside assistance,'' as it is called, given the circumstances, but come Tuesday morning she was still sitting in the checkpoint. She told Holmes she was about ready to toss in the towel.
The story was much the same for Lanier back in Rainy, although somewhat different. He managed to hang onto his team on the trail from Finger Lake down the notorious Happy River steps and then back up some nasty sidehills to Puntilla Lake, but he took a trashing. A veteran of 16 Iditarods and the 35th finisher last year, Lanier crashed twice on the rough climb up through the foothills of the range. One crash left him with a strained or torn Achilles tendon in his bad ankle, and the other gave him a knock on the head. Fortunately, he was wearing a helmet, which might have prevented a more serious injury. He told people in the checkpoint that he was thinking about dropping out of the race, but had yet to make a final decision. Lanier, who did his first Iditarod in 1979, has never before scratched.
This could be the year. Both he and Jonrowe were looking at reports from on down the trail where mushers who'd made it to the next checkpoints described the trail behind in simple terms: rough, rougher and roughest. Jonrowe, who ran her first Iditarod in 1980 when the trail wasn't put in nearly as nice as it is now, described the conditions as the worst she's ever seen. And that observation came after trailbreaking crews did yeoman's work to make the route as passable as possible.
Update, 6 a.m. Tuesday, March 4: Girdwood's Nicolas Petit, who was rookie of the year in 2011 and took last year's most improved musher award, was the second Iditarod racer to reach Nikolai, coming into the checkpoint at 5:36 a.m. Tuesday. According to the Iditarod's GPS trackers, Hugh Neff was en route and expected to arrive third, followed closely by a pack that included Aliy Zirkle, Jeff King, Aaron Burmeister, Michael Williams Jr., and Sonny Lindner, grouped within about five miles of one another.
Update, 5:30 a.m. Tuesday, March 4: Martin Buser, who left the Rohn checkpoint at about the same time many of the race’s top competitors were leaving Rainy Pass, rolled into Nikolai at 1:09 a.m., Tuesday. Buser traveled the segment, that included some of the worst conditions on the trail on this year due to lack of snow, in 11 hours and 24 minutes. His average speed was 6.58 mph -- slower than he and other frontrunners had been averaging, but still fast enough to maintain the solid lead he’s built. Among contenders chasing Buser, Aliy Zirkle moved into second place, spending just 10 minutes in Rohn before hitting the trail again for Nikolai at 5:22 p.m. Monday. She was followed by Sonny Lindner about 50 minutes later, then Nicolas Petit, Hugh Neff and Jeff King..