Martin Buser is still proving to be a master trail strategist, though whether it will pay off remains to be seen.

Buser took a four-hour break at the Rainy Pass checkpoint, a surprise move after blasting through the checkpoint in 2013. Still, his pace isn't far off from last year. The Big Lake musher got in at 5:42 am, just minutes later than last year, when he arrived at 5:38 am.

He said he's operating on a "new and improved plan." Buser was cagey on what his next move would be, but don't expect another 24-hour layover in Rohn. Last year he ran straight through before stopping in Rohn. He held a massive lead heading into the Yukon River, but warm, sloppy trail and sick dogs stripped him of the lead.

Buser and Mike Williams, Jr. both joked about how poor training conditions this season had set them up well. Both said the trail was hard and fast. Williams said he spent most of the 140 miles to Puntilla Lake standing on his drag brake, trying to slow his team which averaged 8.57 mph on the trail between Rainy Pass and Finger Lake.

That's faster than he expected, he said. After a season training on glare ice on the rivers and trails of his hometown of Akiak, his team is cruising on the hard and fast trail.

That doesn't mean it hasn't been without challenges. Two-time runner-up Aliy Zirkle missed the bridge crossing over the Happy River and fell in up to her mid-thigh. Williams had to dodge a tree coming out of the Finger Lake checkpoint.

But musher Hugh Neff was amazed at the quality of the trail. As he pulled into the checkpoint early Monday morning he noted the impressive "power of paranoia" leading into the race.

"I've seen it way worse than this," he said.

See all of our slideshows from the trail and more on our Iditarod page. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram, for more great images from The Last Great Race. Contact Alaska Dispatch photojournalist Loren Holmes at loren(at)