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Village mushers and women finished strong this year

Mike Campbell

Paced by champion John Baker of Kotzebue, the 2011 Iditarod saw a resurgence of mushers who live off the road system. The last such musher to win was Libby Riddles, who lived in Teller when she won the 1985 race.

Three mushers from the Bush joined Baker in the top 20:

• Peter Kaiser of Bethel, the third-place finisher in January's Kuskokwim 300, was eighth.

• Michael Williams Jr. of Akiak, second in the same Kusko, was 13th.

• Robert Nelson of Kotzebue, son of Iditarod veteran Louis Nelson, was 19th.

"He's the only guy from (Akiak) left in racing," Mike Williams Sr. said of his son earlier this week. "He's a real village musher, not from the road system."

The elder Williams is a 14-time Iditarod finisher, and the two men share the family kennel. But he acknowledged his 26-year-old son is tougher and, perhaps most importantly, much lighter than dad's 280 pounds.

"Coming from an economically disadvantaged area with all the expenses that go along with it, it's a major challenge for a village musher," he said. "That's one big hurdle we have to overcome every time. But we depend on fish to be the mainstay of dog food."

Nelson said this year's relatively mild weather worked against village teams.

"Obviously, in this warm weather, it's hard for these dogs," he told Iditarod Insider. "Normally, storms and stuff like that -- our dogs relish that."

Women finish strong

Until Karin Hendrickson of Willow scratched Wednesday in White Mountain, this year's Iditarod was looking like it might tie the record of seven women in the top 30. Instead, six women made it, paced by 10th-place finisher Jessie Royer of Fairbanks, who has never finished lower than 21st in her 10 Iditarod starts.

Other women in the top 30:

• Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers in 11th, matching her best finish. She beat two-time runner-up DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow to the finish line by less than two minutes. "I didn't see her until I was already in town, and she's not exactly crawling," Zirkle told Iditarod Insider.

• Jonrowe in 12th, her best finish since 2006 and her second-fastest Iditarod in a career dating back to 1980;

• Michelle Phillips of Tagish, Yukon, in 17th, a big jump from 27th place a year ago as a rookie;

• Kelley Griffin of Wasilla in 26th, up 19 spots from her previous best of 45th five years ago.

• Kristy Berington of Kasilof in 29th, 10 spots from her rookie race a year ago.

Maixner cashes in

Rookie Kelly Maixner crossed the finish line at 11:29 a.m. Thursday to finish 30th and claim the final paying position, collecting $1,500. The remaining finishers will each take home $1,049.

Maixner, a Big Lake dentist, was one of two rookies in the top 30. The other is Frenchman Nicolas Petit of Girdwood, who took over Iditarod veteran Jim Lanier's team after the 70-year-old needed hip surgery and guided it to 28th place. He'll earn rookie of the year honors for the effort.

Lanier, of Chugiak, finished 24th last year.

"Jim spent hours writing down the whole trail for me," Petit told the Iditarod Insider. "He gave me like 15 different schedules I can use. And then I lost it."

After Petit broke a bone in his foot on the way to Unalakleet, his times plummeted.

"It's not huge anymore, but as soon as that happened, my times went like this," he said, gesturing downward.

History for Halverson?

Ellen Halverson of Wasilla could be on the way to making history she might rather avoid -- the race's first two-time red lantern winner. The Big Lake psychiatrist earned that distinction in 2007, when she was last among 58 mushers.

On Thursday, Halverson was trailing the field again, leaving Unalakleet more than two hours behind Heather Siirtola of Talkeetna.

Red Lantern winners have gone as slow as 32 days, 5 hours, 19 minutes (John Schultz in 1973) and as fast as 13 days, 5 hours, 7 minutes (Celeste Davis last year). But no one has ever won the award twice.

Despite collarbone, Swenson grabs 20th

Despite a broken collarbone, five-time champion Rick Swenson finished 20th for the second straight year Wednesday. It was his 30th top-20 finish, the most by any musher.

Asked at the finish line how his collarbone held up, he told Iditarod Insider, "I can still feel it moving around in there. The most pain was the first two or three days."

Tipping over his sled a few times didn't help.

And the winner is ...

Congratulations to Aldrich Mazonna, of Billings, Mont., who picked John Baker to win the Iditarod in the Daily News' Pick the Iditarod 39 contest, earning an autographed photo of Baker. The winning pick, which was the closest time to the actual finish without going over, was 3:45 a.m. Tuesday. Baker finished at 9:46 a.m. Tuesday. More than 300 people entered.

Reach Mike Campbell at mcampbell@adn.com or 257-4329.

2011 musher leaderboard
By MIKE CAMPBELL
mcampbell@adn.com