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King blows through Ruby, takes Iditarod lead

As the first racers to reach Ruby in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race remained parked in the old Yukon River mining and lumber town Wednesday, four-time champion Jeff King grabbed the lead.

King, who took his eight-hour layover in Tanana, checked in and checked out of Ruby at 9:32 p.m. He was driving a full team of 16 dogs.

Left behind were the Seaveys -- papa Mitch, 55, from Sterling and son Dallas, 27, from Willow -- who were first to reach the checkpoint. They led a group of frontrunners that included Aaron Burmeister from Nome, Martin Buser from Big Lake and Aliy Zirkle from Two Rivers.

In that bunch was a wealth of dog driving experience. Dallas is a two-time and defending Iditarod champ. Zirkle, 45, was on the cusp of victory when a storm literally blew up her race last year, leaving her to finish second for the third consecutive year.

Buser is a four-time champ and former Iditarod course record holder who stormed to the front of the race last year only to fade in the home stretch. A well-known front-runner, he has pledged to run a somewhat more conservative race this year and save the speed of his dogs for a charge to the finish along the Bering Sea coast.

Mitch is a two-time champ who has in the past tended to lag back early in Iditarod and then launch a push to the finish line. Burmeister is a 39-year-old musher who grew up in Nome, ran his first Iditarod in 1994, and has been knocking on the door of Iditarod success for five years now.

He finished 10th last year despite a smashed knee. He splinted his leg with some flat wood stakes and duct tape and kept going.

"It was probably a foolish thing to do in the long run," he confessed before the start of this race."But it's one behind us."

He had the knee rebuilt over the summer and says it is about 80 percent of what it was. He can't run on it yet, but he can kick behind the sled with one leg -- pedaling, as mushers call it.

"It's mind over matter,'' he said. "We're here to win Iditarod."

That will not be an easy task. Burmeister is up against some tough competition.

Both Seaveys looked strong coming into the fading community of Ruby, population now down to 150. Mitch's team trotted strongly up the hill above the river, the musher looking a little tired with white icicles hanging off his mustache.

Only minutes later, Dallas arrived, looking slightly fresher and not quite so frosty.

Mitch confessed to a reporter for Anchorage KTUU-TV that he found himself in a rather odd position in collecting a $500 prize for winning the Penair Spirit of Alaska Award.

"We didn't intend to be here first at all,'' he said. "I really don't even like being in front this early in the race.''

By the time the Seaveys hit Ruby, the race stretched out for almost 150 miles back along the Yukon and Tanana rivers to Manley Hot Springs, where Ellen Halverson, a psychiatrist from Wasilla, was bringing up the rear.

Halverson has started five Iditarods and finished two. Both of her finishes resulted in her picking up the red lantern given the last musher to reach Nome. She is, in some ways, the definition of persistence.

Reach Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna@alaskadispatch.com and Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com.