Burmeister first into Unalakleet, passing Zirkle to seize top spot

Update, 4:05 p.m.

Aaron Burmeister, who grew up in Nome, rolled into Unalakleet Sunday afternoon after seizing the lead in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race during an 11-hour run through the Kaltag Passage to reach Norton Sound.

Burmeister averaged 7.7 mph on the 85-mile run to take the top spot from Aliy Zirkle, even though he left Kaltag about two hours behind her.

Closing fast, too, on the town of about 800 residents is defending Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey.

Burmeiser, who arrived at 3:49 p.m., claimed the Wells Fargo Gold Coast Award, which comes with $3,500 worth of gold nuggets collected from nearby Anvil Creek.

Update, 2:30 p.m.

Once again, the order of the top mushers has been reshuffled -- this time on the long 85-mile run from Kaltag to the first checkpoint on Norton Sound. According to GPS trackers, Aaron Burmeister, the third racer to leave Kaltag, has has passed both four-time champ Jeff King and three-time runnerup Aliy Zirkle, who was the first musher to leave the final Yukon River checkpoint early Sunday morning.

In the final quarter of the long push to the coast, Burmeister held a 10-mile lead over defending champion Dallas Seavey, who has been moving well over the last 200 miles. Zirkle and King were about 8 miles behind Seavey.

Once mushers reach the coast, they have about 260 miles to go before the finish line.

Update, 7:10 a.m.

In frigid cold well before dawn, Aliy Zirkle and her 14 dogs left the mighty Yukon River and headed west toward the stretch run of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Zirkle pulled out of Kaltag at 2:48 a.m., after stopping in the village just 14 minutes to give her dogs a quick snack.

Although she is likely to stop and rest during the rugged 85-mile haul to the Norton Sound coast, she started with a lead of nearly two hours over four-time champion Jeff King, the second musher out of Kaltag. Aaron Burmeister was 12 minutes behind King, and then came the musher who looms, perhaps, as the biggest threat in the 43rd race to Nome -- Dallas Seavey. The defending champion was on the trail at 5:35 a.m. and his 14 dogs appeared to be moving fastest among the frontrunners. They made the 50-mile run from Nulato a full hour faster than Burmeister and about 40 minutes faster than King and Zirkle. If that speed holds up as the frontrunners move down the Seward Peninsula towards Nome, it could prove decisive.

But coming into Kaltag Saturday night, King and Burmeister said they weren't in race mode -- at least not yet.

In an interview just before laying down to sleep in the Kaltag roundhouse that serves as a communal area for mushers, Burmeister said he's still building his team before hitting the coast but feeling good about the 13 animals still on his string. He's feeding them hefty meals of 2,500 calories every two hours, making the two long stretches of trail into Kaltag a "no stress, no pressure" run.

Burmeister's considered his decision to break the 50 miles between Nulato and Kaltag up into two runs "a bit of a gamble," given soft trail conditions and brutally cold temperatures along the way. But he ran during the relative heat of the day, giving his dogs a chance to enjoy the sunshine.

It appears to have paid off. Burmeister said he could hardly get his team to lay down to rest after pulling into the checkpoint.

"I was going to know if I could race on the coast or maintain them, and they came in here on fire," he said.

Burmeister's decision to take his mandatory eight-hour rest at Kaltag -- the last Yukon River checkpoint -- was made based on how his team looked and when he felt they would benefit most from a long rest.

"Others will leave before me, that's fine with me," he said. "Let them blast over to Unalakleet. I'm going to take my time getting there and keep this team strong. I know I have speed in them now. When it's time to turn it on, hopefully we'll be able to race them."

King, too, acknowledged that he would likely watch racers head out before him, and he was comfortable doing that.

The Denali Park musher hobbled as he cared for his dogs, the result of pulling his right hamstring when he fell of his sled between Huslia and Koyukuk after he fell asleep and was hit by a tree branch. He said the leg was feeling better Saturday night, but he still hobbled in an effort to keep his leg straight.

King also planned to drop two dogs, Menace and Nash, dogs he said were running fine but didn't seem "mentally committed."

"I have a huge team and it's easy pulling, but I want to have committed warriors because I'm about to unleash the dragon," King said.

And whether leaders pull through ahead of him or not, King didn't seem interested in chasing them out the village.

"It's not something you can do," King said. "I can remember doing stuff like that with (Doug) Swingley and (Martin) Buser. But it's just stupid to race from here, just go as fast as you can go and see who's around you when you get there."

Update, 10 p.m. Saturday

The Iditarod Trail leaves the river there and climbs about 800 feet to the southwest over the low mountains that separate the Yukon River drainage from the coast. The weather on the 80-mile run to Unalakleet can be formidable, but looks to be reasonable this year.

The National Weather Service was forecasting overnight low temperatures on Saturday of 20 to 30 degrees below zero, a noticeable improvement over the minus-40 temperatures mushers have been enduring, and the winds were expected to be blowing to only 10 mph from the northeast. That would put the wind behind or on the right shoulder of mushers crossing the portage.

Defending champ and two-time winner Dallas Seavey left Nulato an hour ahead of Zirkle at 8:40 p.m after spending a brief seven minutes at the checkpoint. But he stopped to rest for nearly five hours in Kaltag.

Theoretically, Seavey has the best-rested team. The Willow musher did his 24-hour mandatory stay at Huslia, the halfway point for this year's race.

But how that rest affects a team is hard to say. On the 20-mile run from Koyukuk to Nulato, during which mushers do not stop, the teams of Seavey and current fifth-place musher Jessie Royer appeared pretty evenly matched. His team averaged 10 mph, according to Iditarod time sheets; hers did 9.5 mph. King's team averaged 8.3 mph on the same run.

The differences are small, and how much they change depends in large part how the dogs were trained. Some teams train to run slower and rest less. Other teams train to run faster and rest more.

And no matter how a team trains, cutting rest can prove disastrous. A tired team can pretty easily go from trotting smartly to walking, and once an Iditarod team starts walking, it will usually watch a parade of teams go by.

As the race approaches the coast, it is a good time for mushers to be careful and not get too anxious about making a charge for victory.