An Alaskan woman who finished second in last year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has grabbed the lead in this year’s 1,610km race.
Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers was the first musher out of the checkpoint at Kaltag, which is about 557km from the finish. The frontrunners are expected to reach the finish line in the old gold rush town of Nome on Alaska’s western coast early next week.
Teams have been traveling in deep snow followed by deep overflows in a trail on the Yukon River deteriorated by above-freezing temperatures. Some stretches were also marked by glare ice.
Zirkle, 43, took the lead on Saturday from four-time champion Martin Buser, 54, who was the first out of the previous checkpoint at Eagle Island early on Saturday.
Buser is hoping to be only the second musher to claim a fifth title in the race’s 40-year-history. He was the first to reach Kaltag, arriving with 11 dogs at 2:24pm on Saturday.
Zirkle left Eagle Island more than three hours after Buser. Former Iditarod racer Sebastian Schnuelle said that her team traveled faster for much of the day and she came within several kilometers of Buser before stopping her team to rest, 13km before Kaltag.
Schnuelle, who is traveling along the trail and keeping a blog on the Iditarod Web site, said he encountered Zirkle when he reached her by snowmobile.
“Her dogs had just finished a meal,” he wrote. “When talking to her, she told me she did not want to run longer than eight hours, that is why she camped.”
Heading into Kaltag, teams chasing Buser were traveling at faster speeds than his dogs, a possible indicator that his dogs needed a longer period of rest in Kaltag.
Buser tried a strategy early in the race that had many competitors shaking their heads, but he was hoping it would pay off by letting him get to Nome first. On the second day of the competitive portion of the race, Buser took his mandatory 24-hour rest at the checkpoint in Rohn after a blistering fast 273.5km run that had put him hours ahead of the other teams.
Since then, all the teams have taken their 24-hour rest.
All mushers must take a second eight-hour layover at the checkpoint at White Mountain, 124km from Nome.
The first musher to reach Nome wins US$50,400 and a new 2013 Dodge Ram pickup truck. The rest of the US$600,000 purse will be split between the next 29 mushers to cross the finish line.