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Dallas Seavey crosses under Nome's burled arch to win Iditarod 2012

Alaska Dispatch
Michael Williams Jr in White Mountain on Tuesday morning, March 13, 2012.
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Ray Redington Jr arrives at White Mountain on Tuesday morning, March 13, 2012.
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John Baker in White Mountain on Tuesday morning, March 13, 2012.
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John Baker arrived in White Mountain as the leaders were leaving on Tuesday morning, March 13, 2012.
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Ramey Smyth lines his dogs out 10 minutes early in preparation to leave White Mountain on Tuesday morning, March 13, 2012.
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Ramey Smyth prepares to leave White Mountain on Tuesday morning, March 13, 2012.
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Aliy Zirkle prepares to leave White Mountain on Tuesday morning, March 13, 2012.
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Aliy Zirkle leaving White Mountain on Tuesday morning, March 13, 2012.
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Aliy Zirkle leaving White Mountain on Tuesday morning, March 13, 2012.
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Dallas Seavey leaves White Mountain on Tuesday morning, March 13, 2012.
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Dallas Seavey was first out of White Mountain Tuesday morning, March 13, 2012. Watching him leave is Aliy Zirkle, left, and Ramey Smyth.
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Dallas Seavey and Aliy Zirkle prepare to leave White Mountain Tuesday morning, March 13, 2012.
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Dallas Seavey prepares to leave White Mountain Tuesday morning, March 13, 2012.
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Dallas Seavey prepares his dogs for the trip to Nome in White Mountain on Tuesday morning, March 13, 2012.
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Tristan Ashenfelter, age 6, cheers on Dallas Seavey in White Mountain, Tuesday, March 13, 2012.
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A long exposure captures the streak of Dallas Seavey's headlight under a starry night in White Mountain in the early morning hours of Tuesday, March 13, 2012.
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Dallas Seavey, first into White Mountain, wasted no time getting to his chores in the early morning hours of Tuesday, March 13, 2012.
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Aliy Zirkle gets water for her dogs after arriving in White Mountain early Tuesday morning, March 13, 2012.
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Aliy Zirkle in White Mountain early Tuesday morning, March 13, 2012.
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Aliy Zirkle signing into the White Mountain checkpoint early Tuesday morning, March 13, 2012.
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Aliy Zirkle pulls into White Mountain early Tuesday morning, March 13, 2012.
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Dallas Seavey leading the way to Golovin in Iditarod 2012. March 12, 2012
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John Baker on his way to White Mountain on Monday, March 12, 2012.
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Ramey Smyth leaving Elim on Monday, March 12, 2012.
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Dallas Seavey kicking it into high gear on the way to White Mountain on Monday, March 12, 2012.
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Aliy Zirkle on her way to White Mountain on Monday, March 12, 2012.
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Mitch Seavey on his way to White Mountain on Monday, March 12, 2012.
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Update 7:45 p.m. Tuesday: We got distracted a few minutes watching all of the festivities in Nome. Dallas Seavey passed under the burled arch in Nome just before 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to claim his place among Iditarod champions. 

Dallas becomes the youngest musher in Iditarod history to win the Last Great Race. He joins his father, Mitch Seavey, who won the race in 2004. Read all about Dallas's historic Iditarod win here.

Update 4:30 p.m. Tuesday:  The final checkpoint of Safety is behind Dallas Seavey. In about 20 miles, the Willow musher should become the champion of the 40th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Expect him there around 6:30 p.m.  Dallas will join his father Mitch, the 2004 champion, in the inner circle of race winners. His grandfather, Dan Seavey, 74, ran the very first Iditarod in 1973 and is also in the race this year at the back of the pack. Neither Aliy Zirkle, second out of White Mountain, nor Ramey Smyth, third, had reached Safety yet. 

Update 12:50 p.m. Tuesday: With all eyes on the race frontrunners headed into Nome today, there's plenty of drama still going on in the other parts of the Iditarod pack. According to veteran musher and Alaska Dispatch race analyst Zack Steer, there's a patch of bad weather that's slowing progess out in the vicinity of Koyuk and Shaktoolik. Many teams camped out in Shaktoolik overnight, with only Rohn and Martin Buser and Gerald Sousa getting out early this morning.

The weather may have broken somewhat shortly before noon, or maybe mushers were just chomping at the bit, as the Iditarod standings show nine mushers departing Shaktoolik in a span of less than 20 minutes, including Steer's wife Anjanette. Steer said that winds are blowing at 25 mph across the open sea ice, so the storm is still pummelling mushers.

As of 12:15, former champ Rick Swenson had been stationed at Shaktoolik for nearly 20 hours.

Update 11:05 a.m. Tuesday:  Ramey Smyth wasted no time getting out of White Mountain late Tuesday morning. Seavey left like he was going on a leisurely run. Zirkle was punctual. But Smyth was meticulous in his departure down to the second.

He had his team lined up in the chute -- if you can call the intersection of trail and checkpoint start and stop lines "chutes" -- close to 10 minutes before his scheduled 10:17 a.m. departure time Tuesday. For the man known for coming from behind, every second counts and he had no intention of wasting any of it with Aliy Zirkle within striking distance. Financially, the difference between first and second is $3,600. 

Waiting for the countdown, Smyth walked his dog line, petting and patting the runners, offering words of encouragement to the team he'd brought back from illness early in the race. He stood and paused when he got up to his leaders, their heads at his knees. He took off his glove and with a bare hand sunk his fingers into their hair.

Seven minutes! Five minutes! Two minutes! When the clock was about to run out, Smyth climbed on his sled, ready to roll. "You got your running shoes on?" the race judge asked as Smyth got underway.

Update 9:55 a.m. Tuesday: Aliy Zirkle is headed for Nome. The former Yukon Quest Champion left White Mountain promptly at 9:25 Monday morning. But she didn't get far. At least not right away.

Before she'd even cleared the first bend heading out of town, the dogs stopped. When she got them moving, they stopped again. She kept coaxing them to get underway, and after about six or seven false starts, she finally slipped out of view.

Before the stop-and-go start, she asked a group of children gathered, "What do you think, do they have 77 miles left in them?"

She gave a fast-tempoed rallying cry - "Yip-yip-yip-yip-yip!" -- and threw in a whistle, followed by "Let's get out of here, fellas."

Update 9:30 a.m. Tuesday: The man that mushers most fear racing behind them has his eyes on Aliy Zirkle. Ramey Smyth has rebounded in the race after suffering a series of setbacks. He  fell asleep early in the race, causing him to fall off his sled and lose his team. He spent 1-1/2 hours chasing the team down and then disentangling it -- a margin that, had he not wasted it on the approach to Finger Lake, could have placed him neck and neck with Dallas Seavey for the victory.  

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He's 52 minutes behind Zirkle, who is herself a little more than an hour behind Seavey. 

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He's also had a team sick with stomach problems. In Nikolai, he thought they might have food poisoning, and one dog had to receive emergency treatment for pneumonia. Somehow, the team has rebounded.

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"We've been playing catch-up the whole way," Smyth said as he walked his dog line, dishing out breakfast.

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He thinks overtaking Zirkle is mathematically possible, but not likely. His speed leader, "Juice," still isn't fully recovered form the stomach bug, and he'll be making the press for a position shift in the heat of the day.

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That's a problem because just like a high performance engine, if you can't keep the engine cool you can't drive at high RPMs. "I'm not going be able to run these guys at high RPMs," he said.

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Physically fit with superb stamina, Smyth is known for running with his team to lighten their load. But he has had his own performance issues to deal with in this race. Early on, before the halfway point, he pulled a calf muscle, an injury that dogged him all the way to White Mountain and which he said persists.

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He added extra insulation to his team as they slept overnight, laying blankets and even his own coat over the sleeping dogs. Driving out of here, he plans to give it his all, but is grounded in the reality that it may not be enough. 

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"They are still behind the eight ball," he said about his team of dogs.

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How did he get them to bounce back from such a rocky first start? Smyth sums it up in a single word: "Trust." 

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In other news, Gerry Willomitzer, a 43-year-old veteran Iditarod musher, scratched in Unalakleet on Tuesday morning because "his dogs weren't enjoying the trip." He had 12 animals remaining.

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Another scratched musher, Pat Moon, a 35-year-old rookie from Chicago, Ill., came to the aid of an injured child in Ruby on Monday, according to an email forwarded by Iditarod Communications Director Erin McLarnon. According to the email, a child was cut after crashing into a parked snowmachine while sledding in Ruby Monday afternoon. The Village Public Safety Officer was unavailable, and Moon volunteered to help.

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"When he got to the house, he calmed everyone down, stopped the bleeding, cleaned the cut, and applied what was needed to help stop the bleeding and hold the face together," the email from the grateful family member said. "Without Pat, we would have lost a family member."

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Moon scratched in Ruby on Sunday after his team had dwindled to just seven dogs. 

Update 8:58 a.m. Tuesday: Did someone unplug Dallas Seavey? The frontrunner with a healthy lead is on his way to Nome from White Mountain. But for a few minutes at take off time, Seavey was uncharacteristically mellow. Good thing he's the driver, since he showed up late to take the sled and dogs out for a final spin.

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Seavey could have left at 8:14 this morning, but didn't pull away from White Mountain until 8:22. When the time he could have left came, Seavey was still up the hill above the dog lot, and soon came running down to rev up his 9-dog team and take off.

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Aliy Zirkle, Ramey Smyth and Pete Kaiser looked on as Seavey pulled away. With a lead dog named "Guiness" at the front of his team, the man who's likely to become the race's youngest winner drove his team in snaking curves out of of the checkpoint and onto the trail.

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Zirkle, meanwhile, is feeling the Iditarod "squeeze" -- chasing and being chased simultaneously. With Smyth on her heels, she'll need to give as much attention to fending him off as she does to trying to cut Seavey's lead of more than an hour.

Update 8:10 a.m. Tuesday: Dallas Seavey was preparing to head out of White Mountain following the mandatory 8-hour rest all mushers must take at the checkpoint -- which was much needed, according to Jill Burke, reporting from the checkpoint. And though Seavey had built a near-insurmountable lead over second-place racer Aliy Zirkle, a bit of psychological warfare that Seavey attempted near the checkpoint at Elim wasn't responsible.

From Jill Burke:

A clever move pulled off by Seavey outside of Elim may not have been as crafty as he hoped. Pulling into White Mountain, Seavey admitted he intentionally stopped for a break outside the village of Elim in hopes that Zirkle would think he'd actually continued on. The psychological strategy, though, didn't work.

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"I knew he was going to do that without him even telling me that," Zirkle said from the White Mountain checkpoint. "I knew he was going to camp his dogs."

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Zirkle deduced Seavey's need for rest based on how hard he'd been running. She may not have known exactly where he'd stopped, but she knew he'd be doing it.

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After putting their dogs to bed,  the two Yukon Quest winners greeted each other inside the checkpoint's headquarters.

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Zirkle: "Hey sweetie, how are you?"

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Seavey: "I'm here."

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Both mushers are tired and in need of rest before making the final push to Nome.

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Five mushers had checked into White Mountain as of Tuesday morning -- Seavey, Zirkle, Ramey Smyth, Aaron Burmeister and Pete Kaiser. GPS showed Mitch Seavey and last year's winner John Baker camped out close together along the trail between Elim and White Mountain.

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Despite a strong surge in this late part of the race, Ramey Smyth rolled into White Mountain 52 minutes behind Zirkle, and would have his work cut out for him to grab the runner-up prize.

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From White Mountain, mushers will run a long 55 miles to Safety, the final checkpoint before the finish in Nome, another 22 miles away.The Iditarod expects the winner into Nome between 5:00 and 6:00 this evening. 

Update 12:30 a.m. Tuesday: Dallas Seavey arrived at the White Mountain checkpoint at about 12:14 a.m. Aliy Zirkle was about 6 miles behind him.

Mushers are required to lay over at the White Mountain checkpoint for a mandatory eight hours before proceeding to Nome.

Update 10:55 p.m. Monday: Sometime after midnight, Dallas Seavey, Aliy Zirkle and Ramey Smyth will march into the White Mountain checkpoint, only 77 miles from Nome and Iditarod glory.

Earlier in the evening it appeared Ramey Smyth was poised to make a move on Zirkle, who he was trailing by just two miles. Zirkle and Seavey have since widened the gap -- Smyth was running about 10 miles behind the two frontrunners just before 11 p.m., according to the Iditarod's GPS tracker.

An interesting nugget of news about Smyth's team: just two days ago, Iditarod Chief Veterinarian Stu Nelson told Alaska Dispatch that "the sickest dog" they'd seen on the trail had been in Smyth's team.

On Saturday, an animal in Smyth's team ended up getting dropped in Nikolai suffering from pneumonia symptoms. The dog had come down with& either a stomach virus or food poisoning, trouble that became apparent when the dog aspirated after vomiting during a run.

Smyth said he thought the stomach problems started after he fed his team poultry skins. After responding to treatment, the animal was doing "very well," Nelson said.

By all appearances, Smyth has recovered. 

Update 7:15 p.m. Monday: The Iditarod's "blue collar musher" appears to be making a move.

Ramey Smyth of Willow has nearly caught race frontrunners Dallas Seavey and Aliy Zirkle. Seavey, traveling at about 7.5 mph, is about 36 miles out of White Mountain, according to Iditarod GPS. Zirkle, in second, is just two miles behind him, traveling at 5.9 mph.

And then there's Smyth, who's four miles behind Zirkle -- six miles from the lead -- and traveling at a blistering 9.3 mph, according to the latest Iditarod GPS info.

Many pro mushers who are following this year's race are now definitely looking at Smyth as a potential dark horse winner -- and definitely a factor in the top-5.

Zack Steer, our race pro, says Smith totaled his dog truck in February when he hit a moose.

"I like Ramey. He's a paycheck musher. He NEEDS it more than the rest," Steer said.

Keep in mind, Iditarod frontrunners split quite a large pot of money. In 2011, Smyth came in second and took home $46,300 after he finished the race in a time of 8 days, 19 hours, 50 minutes, 59 seconds -- only 51 minutes behind race winner John Baker, who took home $50,400.

The top-5 mushers last year split $213,700. This year mushers will split up a $550,000 pot of money.

Update 5:25 p.m. Monday: "Susan Butcher would be rolling over in her grave."

At least that's what Alaska Dispatch Iditarod analyst Zack Steer says about a move Dallas Seavey appears to be making just outside of Elim on the trail. (See attached map on left)

From Zack:

Dallas is camped just outside Elim, around the corner where Aliy (and mouthy villagers) can't see him. 

 Aliy has pulled up to rest in Elim.  

If she knew what we can see, she should go. She would at least pull even with him.

 

Update: 9:20 a.m. Monday:  Start slow, finish fast.  For years, that has been the style of Willow musher Ramey Smyth, and this year is no different. Smyth, 36, the runner-up last year to John Baker’s fastest Iditarod ever, started this year’s race at a sometime dawdling pace.  He was 43rd in Finger Lake, 25th in Cripple.

 

So where was Smyth Monday morning as the racers rolled down the Seward Peninsula anticipating a Tuesday finish in Nome?  Seventh. And coming. Smyth was still behind the 10 dogs he'd driven for hundreds of miles. And his speed to Koyuk was second only to another surging musher, Peter Kaiser of Bethel. 

Watch out. Smyth is only an hour out of fourth place. And he owns the race's final stretch. A record seven times Smyth has won the Nome Kennel Club’s Fastest Time From Safety to Nome Award. Typically, he’s well under three hours on that 20-mile stretch. His fastest, in 1997, was 2:07. 

And the father of two is especially motivated this year. "I am running under the banner of abstinence from drinking, smoking, and drugs," he says on his race biography.  “My mother died of colon cancer and my father has cancer. I would like to raise awareness of cancer and encourage people to donate to research and treatment. I am racing in memory of Brent Cassidy who died this spring of cancer leaving a wife, children, and grandchildren.”

Update 2:50 p.m. Saturday: Kelley Griffin of Wasilla left Galena just before 1 p.m. Saturday with 12 dogs (she started with 14). She says her race – she was 28th -- is going fairly well so far. Just before she left, Colleen Robertia of Kasilof handed Griffin an emergency stash of batteries. Griffin's iPod had died and she coudn't get Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” out of her head. Asked whether that's a good song or a bad song to be stuck on for a musher, she answered, “What do you think?”

Update 2:10 p.m. Saturday: For the third consecutive year, Zoya DeNure of Paxson has scratched from the Iditarod. The 34-year-old, who finished 53rd in her rookie race in 2008, pulled out in Cripple. No reason was given. Twelve dogs remained in her team. DeNure is a former fashion model who was inspired by the late Susan Butcher to take up mushing. She and husband John Schandelmeier, a former Yukon Quest champion, own and operate Denali Highway Tours & Cabins and Crazy Dog Kennels.

Update 12:10 p.m Saturday:  With a late burst of energy, Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers closed out her run down the Yukon River by pulling into Kaltag at 11:14 a.m. Saturday.  In the final 47-mile stretch from Nulato to Kaltag, Zirle averaged impressive 9.59 mph. That's a more than 2 mph faster than most racers, including Zirkle, have traveled for most of the 137 miles of river running from Ruby to Kaltag.  

Perhaps Zirkle's strategy of postponing her mandatory eight-hour rest to the Galena checkpoint paid off with a fresher team.  Most of the frontrunners racers stopped the long rest in the first Yukon River checkpoint of Ruby.

Update, 4:10 p.m. Friday:  Pushing the pace, Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers reached Galena 3:53 p.m. Friday following a 50-mile run on the Yukon River ice from Ruby.

Mitch Seavey of Sterling, her closest pursuer, left Ruby at 2 p.m. -- but there was one big difference between the two racers.  Seavey had finished the one mandatory eight-hour race every musher must take somewhere on the Yukon River. Zirkle had yet to begin hers. Assuming Zirkle stops in Galena, she won't be eligible to leave until just before midnight. And if Seavey matches Zirkle's time of just under 7 hours on the Ruby-to-Galena run, he'll pull in just before 9 p.m.

Seavey's son Dallas was also headed downriver a little past 3 p.m. after finishing his 8-hour rest.   

Update 12:10 p.m. Friday:  Prospects for the first Family Iditarod Sandwich -- with members of the same clan winning the 1,000-mile race and claiming the Red Lantern for finishing last -- stayed strong on Friday.  While 2004 Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey and his 25-year-old son Dallas were jostling for the lead, Mitch's dad was still lingering in last place.

Dan Seavey, 74, has brought up the rear for much of this year's Iditarod, and he was in Takotna on Friday afternoon, while the next-to-last musher, fellow veteran Bob Chlupach, was on the trail headed for Ophir.

Chlupach was an Iditarod rookie way back in 1977, although Dan Seavey may consider him a youngster. Seavey ran the inaugural Iditarod in 1973, finishing third. 

The Iditarod, in its 40th year, has never seen members of the same family at the front and back of the same race. However, the Mackey family has had three champions (father Dick Mackey, sons Rick and Lance) and one Red Lantern winner, Bill Mackey in 1984.

Update 8:00 a.m. Friday:  As people gathered in Ruby to wait for Iditarod leader Mitch Seavey to arrive early Friday morning, the weather was very clear, the temperature about minus-8.

A full moon shone over one horizon, and a dramatic display of northern lights swirled and danced. The lights, mostly shades of green and the barest hints of red, formed almost a full circle around the horizon and shot up in curves to the middle of the sky.

Despite the stunning display, onlookers still noticed Seavey's headlamp mushing up the hill and pulling into town at a few minutes after 6 a.m. He seemed very focused when he got in, and got a little edgy after a slight mishap while putting his team into its parking spot next to the checkpoint.

Seavey, his parka and sled coated in a light layer of frost, cursed a bit. He didn't want people to touch his dogs as they made their way, but he became worried that race volunteers appeared about to “tackle” his dogs as they tried to help guide them into their parking spot.

The issue was resolved quickly, and he set about the work of lining out the dogs, two of whom laid down almost immediately and began licking their paws.

“The run in here was really long, and the team looks really tired,” Seavey said.

Today and yesterday were not good on the dogs, he commented, adding that he had passed one team that was parked along the trail. He didn't know for certain who it was, but it was likely Aliy Zirkle, who had been the first musher to leave the last checkpoint, Cripple, and could be camping along the trail.

Seavey, despite being the first musher to reach the Yukon River, seemed a bit disappointed with his position. Not because he's leading or was the first, he said, but because his strategy was to make longer runs in the hopes that he would gain time on the other teams, but the longer runs didn't amount to the lead he hoped to build.

As a result of the longer runs, he said, his team has a “rest deficit,” which he plans to knock down by staying in Ruby at least 8 hours.

“Dallas is going to be way faster than me now,” Mitch Seavey said. “There's a lot more to it than just being here first. (I) paid a price to do it.”

He said he was surprised Dallas didn't pass him on the trail, and when asked who has the better team between the two of them, he said, “He didn't used to, but I bet you a dollar he does now.”

In past years, the first musher to arrive at Ruby, a hillside village nestled between mountains and the Yukon River, could expect a big cash prize and an opulent meal -- steak, king crab and champagne, even. This year, however, the Iditarod lost sponsorship for the first-to-the-Yukon prize, and even though Seavey's rest plans mean he'd have had plenty of time to enjoy a sumptuous meal, there won't be a table for one in Ruby this year.

There will still be a cash prize, though. Scott Jansen, an Anchorage funeral home director who goes by the name “The Mushing Mortician,” came through with a $3,000 donation to keep the prize alive.

When Dallas Seavey approached the checkpoint, at a few minutes before 7 a.m., he and his team mushed beneath two pairs of sneakers dangling over the powerlines at the point the trail meets the street in Ruby.

The scene was much different from the one that greeted the elder Seavey. The northern lights were gone, and the sky had turned an early morning, clear-sunrise blue with a few, wispy clouds, low on the horizon. And the checkpoint had begun to bustle with volunteers, onlookers and media.

Update 7:30 p.m.:  See ya, fellas!  Pausing just six minutes after the bruising 73-mile run to the remote Cripple checkpoint, former Yukon Quest champion Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers pulled out at 6:32 Thursday night, to begin another long push to the Yukon River. She wouldn't have to wait long for company.  Mitch Seavey of Sterling gave chase 23 minutes later, and there was a big difference between the two mushers.

Seavey, the 2004 Iditarod champion, rested at Cripple for 4 hours, 39 minutes. Zirkle's strategy likely was to make the long 143-mile run from Ophir-to-Cripple-to-Run with just two rest stops, neither one of which is the Cripple checkpoint.  

Want evidence?  Seavey made the run from Ophir to Cripple and 10 hours, 24 minutes.  Zirkle took four hours longer. Since they are closely matched at this point in the race, Zirkle clearly rested.

By 8 p.m., 11 mushers had reached Cripple, including Norway's Sigrid Ekran, who has moved up more than 10 spots over the last day to 11th.    

 

Update 4 p.m.: Iditarod race officials just announced that Ryan Redington, bib number 67, scratched from this year's race at the Takotna checkpoint. Redington officially ended his 2012 Iditarod run at 9:30 a.m. Thursday, according to race officials. Redington was down to 10 dogs on his team and cited "personal reasons" for scratching. More on that to come.

Redington's brother, Ray, remains a competitor in the race. 

Update, 2:18 p.m.: 71-year-old musher Jim Lanier outraced the other mushers nipping at his heels into Cripple, the halfway point of the Iditarod Trail, and claimed a prize of gold nuggets worth $3,000. Lanier pulled into Cripple at 1:55 p.m., beating fellow mushers Trent Herbst and Mitch Seavey. Herbst and Lanier both bypassed Takotna, where many mushers opted to take their mandatory 24-hour rest, in hopes of racing for the halfway prize. Seavey, who completed his rest in Takotna and was the first to leave that checkpoint, pulled in 21 minutes later with 15 dogs still in harness.

Meanwhile, GPS shows that Aliy Zirkle, the first musher into and second out of Takotna, had stopped a little more than 20 miles outside of Cripple, despite being near the front of the pack until then. Veteran Iditarod musher Zack Steer, who has been providing analysis of this year's race for Alaska Dispatch, theorizes that Zirkle has set up camp and it's just part of her strategy.

Steer said that Zirkle may skip Cripple altogether and camp again along the trail, breaking up the long run to Ruby. It's a strategy that Steer said four-time champion Lance Mackey used to great success in one of his recent Iditarods.

But will it pay off? Time will tell. Herbst and Lanier will have to declare their 24-hour layovers at some point, so they'll fall from their high positions on the leaderboards. Meanwhile, it puts Mitch Seavey and his son Dallas in closer contention: the younger Seavey was just a few miles outside of Cripple.

Update, 12:15 p.m.: If you’ve got no shot at the big money and the 2012 Dodge Ram pickup awarded to the first musher across the finish line, $3,000 in gold nuggets doesn’t sound too bad.

That’s the prize the first musher to the Iditarod halfway point of Cripple will earn. And that’s why 71-year-old veteran musher Jim Lanier was pushing hard Thursday afternoon. Lanier had a lead of more than four hours out of the previous checkpoint of Ophir over Mitch Seavey, the 2004 Iditarod champion. There was another big difference between the two men: Seavey had finished taking his mandatory 24-hour layover that every musher must take enroute to Nome, while Lanier had yet to start his.

According to former champion Joe Runyan, writing on the race’s website, the final miles to Cripple will be tough. “(Trailbreakers) did notice that 25 miles from Cripple the trail conditions changed dramatically to a soft bottomless pit.  In their opinion, this last stretch of trail into Cripple is the toughest.”

Alaska’s snowy and brutally cold winter is one reason why. Even after snowmachines that break the trail before the dog sleds pass through, “snow just won’t harden as you would imagine,” Runyan wrote. “With any kind of disturbance, including machine traffic, the loosely bound snow turns to powder. Counterintuitive, for sure, but the Alaskans will tell you that minus-50F has modified the snow, actually dried it out, and given it that peculiar powdery character.”

All of which may give a Seavey -- young son Dallas wasn’t far behind his father -- a chance to claim gold.

Update 9:50 a.m. -- In a field dense-packed with former champions and feared young mushers on the rise, guess who posted the fastest time on the short run from Takotna -- where many mushers took their mandatory 24-hour rest -- to Ophir?  Not a Seavey.  Not Jeff King. Not John Baker. Not Aliy Zirkle, who's led much of the way. 

It's Sigrid Ekran, the young Norwegian who posted an average speed of 9.26 mph behind 14 strong dogs.  Even with the burst of speed, she remained in 23rd place. Ekran, 32, was the Iditarod rookie of the year in 2007, when she finished 20th, but has not entered the Iditarod since 2008.  She was part of the Norwegian Invasion about a decade ago highlighted by Robert Sorlie's two victories and consistently strong performances by her countrymen.  

After earning a master's degree from UAF and living in the Fairbanks area for five years, she moved back to Norway to compete in a variety of European races.  Sparbu is her hometown today.  

Update 11:05 p.m. -- Iditarod officials just issued a press release announcing that Silvia Furtwängler, a well-respected European musher who was running her first Iditarod, has scratched from the race.

Here's the meat of the statement:

Silvia Furtwängler scratched in Nikolai at 9:17 p.m. Alaska Time.  Furtwängler from Rauland, Norway made the decision to scratch due to concern for her health.  Furtwängler had 13 dogs on her team when she made the decision.

In an interview just before the Willow restart of Iditarod XL, Furtwängler told Alaska Dispatch that running the Iditarod had been a longtime dream, a bucket list to-do, and that she looked forward to sharing the experience with her dogs.

Furtwängler has previously run the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.

Update: 6:25 p.m. from McGRATH -- Plentiful soft snow has contributed to what so far has been among the easiest Iditarods for the animals doing the running.  Of the 1,056 dogs that started the race in Willow on Sunday, only 96 animals have been dropped -- fewer than typical for the fourth day of the 1,000-mile race to Nome.

"The numbers are certainly lower than usual," said Iditarod Chief Veterinarian Stu Nelson. Most injuries are what Nelson called "minor orthopedic," such as sore shoulders and wrists. A soft trail with a solid base typically means fewer injuries.

Fifteen teams are still racing a full string of 16 dogs.

In Nikolai, Ramey Smyth dropped one of his sick dogs with pneumonia. One race vet theorized food poisoning may have caused the dog to vomit, which it then aspirated while running.

Mackey grabs a snooze

Unlike most teams parked in Takotna, four-time champion Lance Mackey was taking his 24-hour layover in McGrath, where he was sleeping Wednesday. His team was bedded down behind a snow berm with a large satellite dish looming over them.  

Copping an attitude

In a McGrath lunchroom, Kelley Griffin and Trent Herbst shared black forest cake and coffee. Herbst planned to push ahead to Ophir before taking his mandatory 24-hour layover, while Griffin planned to polish off hers here.

"He's fun to travel with because he's always smiling," Griffin said of Herbst. "He's not a downer." That can be a rarity on a long trail that eventually wears on every musher.

"Some people get real down," Griffin said.

"Everybody gets down at some point," Herbst agreed, "(but) Kelly doesn't whine."

"I bitch," she corrected. "I don't whine. It comes down to inflection."

Their goals for this Iditarod differ. Herbst is seeking to finish the race in under 10 days. Kelley hopes for 9 days, 17 hours -- some 12 hours faster than her best.

Who will be up front?

Griffin likes Aliy Zirkle, the first musher to Takotna, though she declined to predict victory.  "She's not a wingnut. She's not stupid. She definitely has a plan. She'd be the uber-diva if she won it."

Herbst predicts that Mitch Seavey will capture his second Iditarod, followed by Zirkle and Ramey Smyth. 

Colorful checkpoint

In Wednesday's sunshine, it was clear the ice lanterns placed to create a chute to the McGrath checkpoint were actually purple, blue, red, orange and green.

When musher Lachlan Clark came through in 37th place at 12:28 p.m., there was barely enough personnel to deal with the team in the two minutes or so it took to watch him cross the river. By the time he reached the checkpoint, enough people had assembled to handle the check-in.

Things can change

Race Judge Al Marple cautioned that the easy early days of racing could change on the long 90-mile run from Ophir to Cripple -- or once the teams reach the Yukon River in Ruby.

"That can make or break a race," Marple said.

McGrath head checker Mark Cox thought the race seemed faster than normal because people had been "psyched out" by early reports of deep snow along the trail.

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While most mushers rested in Takotna or McGrath on Wednesday, four-time champion Martin Buser pushed on to the remote checkpoint of Ophir to move to the front of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. 

Buser arrived at 12:19 p.m.  His son, Rohn, checked in at 1:34 p.m. 

While the Busers are at the front of the pack right now, they will be well off the pace when most mushers complete their 24-consecutive-hour layovers late Wednesday night and Thursday morning.

Zirkle will finish her layover about midnight, and will begin the 23-mile run to Ophir. Before dawn Thursday, expect Zirkle and John Baker, the second musher into Takotna, to pass the resting Busers.

Later Wednesday afternoon, 70-year-old Chugiak musher Jim Lanier pulled out of Takotna at 3:07 p.m. and Trent Herbst followed about an hour later.  Neither musher had yet begun their 24-hour layovers. 

For a quick look at the top-10 Iditarod race teams, check out the leaderboard in our special Iditarod section.