Martin Buser turned the Iditarod on its head Monday.
Defying conventional wisdom, Buser shook up the race on its first full day by making a nearly nonstop, 169-mile run from the start line in Willow to the first checkpoint on the northern side of the Alaska Range.
Buser, a 54-year-old four-time champion from Big Lake, reached Rohn at the ungodly hour of 9:53 a.m. Monday -- ungodly because no one remembers a musher reaching the checkpoint so early in the 1,000-mile race to Nome.
Buser told the Iditarod Insider that he would take his mandatory 24-hour layover in Rohn.
That allowed several mushers, a group led by Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof and Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers, to race past Buser on Monday night. They all will take their mandatory 24s somewhere closer to the Yukon River.
Buser's sprint to Rohn was confounding -- he made the run in a little less than 20 hours, stopping at the four previous checkpoints for a total of 79 minutes.
"My buddy Martin is doing something different, which is neat to see," 2011 champion John Baker of Kotzebue said while taking a break in Finger Lake, two checkpoints before Rohn.
"He wants to win," Baker added. "I love that about him."
Whether the opening gambit becomes known as Buser's fifth victory or Buser's folly, no one knows.
Typically the Iditarod frontrunner reaches Rohn on Monday evening. In 2011, the year Baker set the race record, Robert Bundtzen was the first to reach Rohn, arriving at 5:17 p.m. In 2002, the year Buser set the record that Baker went on to break, Buser led the way to Rohn at 7:25 p.m.
This time, Buser got there before 10 a.m. and rested his team during the heat of the day. Back at Finger Lake, temperatures climbed to nearly 30 degrees, so warm that one mid-pack musher spotted mosquitoes in the dog yard.
While making repairs to his sled in Rohn, Buser told Iditarod Insider that he started racing with the idea of opening with one long run and then putting things on pause for 24 hours.
"The strategy is to get away from everyone else and try something new that's not been tried before," he said. "It might work. Then again, it might not."
The plan, he said, is to go fast and furious, stop for a day, then go fast again.
"The goal is to get off the 24 with as much speed as we started the race," he told Iditarod Insider. "When we take our 24 later, we never seem to be able to do that. So I'm gonna try that. I think it might work."
Buser drew the race's No. 1 start position, which means his 24 hours in Rohn will be more like 26 hours. Mushers leave the start in two-minute intervals, and times are adjusted when a musher takes his 24-hour layover.
Following a similar plan is Matt Failor of Big Lake, who's driving Buser's B team. Failor was the second musher to reach Rohn, arriving at 2:11 p.m.
"They probably didn't expect us to do this," Failor told Iditarod Insider while tending to his dogs in Rohn.
The makeup of Buser's team changed last month when his son, 2012 Kusko 300 champion Rohn Buser, withdrew from the race. The two train together at Buser's Happy Trails Kennel, and when Rohn pulled out of the race, Martin blended six of his son's dogs with eight of his own for what, for now, is looking like a super team.
Buser and Failor had Rohn to themselves for most of Monday.
Company finally arrived at 7:15 p.m. in the form of Gebhardt, who left at 7:26.
Zirkle, last year's runnerup, got there at 7:18 and left at 7:30 p.m.
By 10 p.m. Monday, 23 mushers had reached Rohn and nine mushed straight through. That group included four-time champion Jeff King of Denali Park, who left at 8:05 p.m., and 2004 champion Mitch Seavey, who left at 8:56 p.m. Michelle Phillips left between those two at 8:36 p.m.
Among the frontrunners, Seavey posted the fastest time between Rainy Pass and Rohn, making the run in 3 hours, 58 minutes. Nicolas Petit did it in 4:09, allowing him to leave Rohn in eighth place. Zirkle clocked 4:10, King 4:12, Buser 4:13 and sixth-place Ray Redington Jr. 4:14.
On the run from Finger Lake to Rainy Pass, Seavey had the fastest time at 3:20, followed by King at 3:21. Buser did it in 3:39.
Reach Beth Bragg at email@example.com or 257-4335.
By KEVIN KLOTT and BETH BRAGG
Anchorage Daily News