Amid snowfall, the top dozen mushers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race yanked their snow hooks Monday afternoon and began a steep 40-mile descent to Rohn River.
Yukon Quest champion Hugh Neff was the first to leave Rainy Pass at 2:58 p.m. Within an hour, nine racers had given chase. They included:
• Ray Redington Jr. of Wasilla, the early race leader, who was 11 minutes back.
• Lance Mackey of Fairbanks, the four-time champion looking to tie aging Rick Swenson as the winningest Iditarod musher of all time.
• Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers, the former Yukon Quest champion who's behind a powerful dog team that finished seconds behind Neff at last month's Quest.
• John Baker of Kotzebue, the defending Iditarod champion and race record holder.
• Rick Swenson of Two Rivers, the most decorated musher in Iditarod history who despite his age of 61 is hanging closer to the front that he often does.
• Jeff King of Denali Park, another four-time champion returning to the Iditarod after ending his brief retirement.
Perhaps the only surprise among the front-runners was Kelley Griffin, the 52-year-old veteran from Wasilla. Even though she's finished three Iditarods and a number of Quests, she has never contended for victory. She was the first woman to finish the Quest and the Iditarod in the same year, a feat she accomplished in 2008. Last year, she finished fifth in the Quest and 26th in the Iditarod, both personal bests.
Both Zirkle and Mackey are driving dog teams fresh off a successful 1,000-mile run in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race last month. Some of the dogs in Zirkle’s team were in husband Allen Moore’s team that finished second to Hugh Neff by less than a minute in that race. Mackey finished third and proclaimed himself happy with how his crew of young dogs performed.
For many contenders, the goal of the first couple of days on the trail is to stay in contention without stressing the dog team with a maddening early pace.
“A lot of people will try to race out to the front and get to the front of the pack,” young Rohn Buser, the Kuskokwim 300 champion, said on Sunday to Iditarod Insider at the race start in Willow.
“But you've got to be careful not to go out too fast. It’s more important to set a good pace for your team, something your team can maintain. You’ve just got to keep them relaxed and don't blow them up on the first day so on Day 5 you don’t say, 'Oh man, I went down the river too fast.’”