Sun, Mar 13, 2005 - Page 23 News List

Paul Gebhardt holds lead in Iditarod sled dog race


Bill Steyer of Fairbanks, Alaska, gets ready to head out of the Takotna, Alaska, checkpoint during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Friday.


Paul Gebhardt enjoyed a seven-course gourmet meal for being the first musher to reach the Yukon River in the 1770km Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Friday.

Gebhardt, 48, whose best finish was second in 2000, reached the Anvik checkpoint at 7:14am. For being first to the Yukon, Gebhardt enjoyed some distinctly non-trail fare that included braised musk ox and shitake mushroom stew and buffalo tenderloin with peppercorn sauce. He also received 3,500 crisp US$1 bills.

Gebhardt is the only one of several mushers in the top tier who has not taken a mandatory 24-hour rest of his team. He said he would satisfy the requirement at Anvik, 774km from Nome.

In second place was Robert Sorlie of Norway, the 2003 Iditarod winner. Four-time winner Martin Buser was in third, followed by Yukon Quest winner Aliy Zirkle and Ramy Brooks.

Rick Swenson, the only five-time winner of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, dropped out of the running on Thursday -- the first time he's scratched from the race to Nome in 29 years on the trail.

The 54-year-old musher officially withdrew after returning to the checkpoint at McGrath, 1,161km from the finish line. Swenson told race managers he was concerned about the well-being of his dog team.

"He said they weren't running as well as he wanted them to,'' said race marshal Mark Nordman.

Swenson took his mandatory 24-hour rest at McGrath, then traveled 18 miles to the Takotna checkpoint, arriving shortly before 7am Thursday, race officials said. He dropped off one of his dogs, then headed for Ophir -- 40km away -- with 12 dogs. Mushers start the race with 16 dogs and must end it with at least five.

On the trail, Swenson decided to turn back to McGrath, a busy hub where he could transport his dogs home quicker, said Iditarod spokesman Chas St. George.

"He's the kind of guy who hates to quit, so his decision was based on what's in the best interest of his team," he said.

Another top musher withdrew from competition late Wednesday, also surprising race officials. Zack Steer was in eighth place when he scratched at the Ophir checkpoint, about 764km into the race to Nome.

Steer, whose pregnant wife is due later this month, cited personal reasons for dropping out.

As of noon Thursday, six mushers had scratched, leaving 73 mushers in the running. Judy Merritt withdrew Wednesday in Rainy Pass, later telling officials she sustained a concussion after crashing her sled on the trail.

Sorlie was the first musher to arrive early Thursday at the checkpoint in the ghost town of Iditarod -- considered the halfway point.

For getting there first, the 47-year-old firefighter received US$4,000 in gold nuggets. Sorlie also was the first musher to reach the halfway point of Eagle Island over a different route when he won the race in 2003 in 9 days, 15 hours and 47 minutes. The normal route was abandoned that year.

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