ANCHORAGE, Alaska - An Alaska woman who finished second in last year's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race grabbed the lead in the 1,000-mile race Saturday evening.
Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers was the first musher out of the checkpoint at Kaltag, which is about 346 miles from the finish. The front-runners 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 also were marked by glare ice.
Zirkle, 43, took the lead from four-time champion Martin Buser, who was the first out of the previous checkpoint at Eagle Island early Saturday. The 54-year-old veteran from Big Lake, Alaska, dropped two dogs at Eagle Island.
Buser is hoping to be only the second musher to ever claim a fifth title in the race's 40-year-history. He was the first to reach Kaltag, arriving with 11 dogs at 2:24 p.m. Saturday.
Zirkle left Eagle Island more than three hours after Buser. Former Iditarod racer Sebastian Schnuelle said her team traveled faster for much of the day and she came within several miles of Buser before stopping her team to rest eight miles before Kaltag.
Schnuelle, who is traveling along the trail and keeping a blog on the Iditarod website, 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 8 hrs, 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 170-mile run that had put him hours ahead of the other teams.
Since then, all the teams have taken their 24-hour rest.
Buser said he couldn't worry about the performance of others because he had no control over that.
"You got to just run it to the best of your abilities, not what other people are doing," he said Thursday in an Iditarod.com video. "It really just comes down to you and your dog team."
All mushers must take a second eight-hour layover at the checkpoint at White Mountain, 77 miles from Nome.
The first musher to reach Nome will win $50,400 and a new 2013 Dodge Ram pickup truck. The rest of the $600,000 purse will be split between the next 29 mushers to cross the finish line.
The race began with 66 teams at a ceremonial start in Anchorage March 2. The competitive start began Sunday in Willow. Five mushers have scratched, the latest being Chugiak veteran Michael Suprenant. Race officials said Suprenant scratched Saturday out of concern for his 12-dog team at the ghost town checkpoint of Iditarod.