ANCHORAGE, Alaska - A former winner of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race took the lead early Sunday and held onto it as he pressed forward along the Bering Sea coastline. Another musher was just 15 minutes behind.
With less than 250 miles to the finish line, Mitch Seavey was the first musher to leave Unalakleet, where he pulled into town earlier at 10:13 a.m. and was able to rest his team for about five hours. Aaron Burmeister pulled into the checkpoint just 15 minutes after Seavey and was the same musher who followed him out.
The mushers arrived at the checkpoint after traveling from Kaltag, the last stop on the frozen Yukon River.
"It was a long run. I think my dogs are kind of tired from yesterday on the river," Seavey told the Iditarod Insider after pulling into Unalakleet. "So much deep snow and hot, but they are hanging in there. Not as quick as I would like to be, but quick enough for today I guess."
The 1,000-mile race to Nome began with 66 teams at a ceremonial start in Anchorage March 2, and the race's competitive start was the next day in Willow. Five mushers have scratched so far.
In Unalakleet, Seavey - the 2004 champion and the father of defending champion, Dallas Seavey - was greeted by dozens of townspeople and awarded $2,500 in gold nuggets and a trophy.
Four-time Iditarod winner Jeff King moved into third position. Jake Berkowitz was in fourth, followed by Aliy Zirkle and Ray Redington Jr., the grandson of race co-founder Joe Redington Sr. Rookie Joar Leifseth Ulsom of Norway was in seventh place.
Seavey, 53, made the 90-mile trip from Kaltag to the Bering Sea coastline in a little more than 12 1/2 hours, going at 6.72 mph in the nearly 1,000 mile race from Anchorage to Nome.
Dallas Seavey was in ninth place Sunday. Four-time champion Martin Buser, who has led much of the race, was in eighth.
Mushers reported very difficult trail conditions on the Yukon River that required dogs to go through deep snow and navigate glare ice. Above-freezing temperatures also have led to overflow along the trail, a potentially dangerous situation where water has pushed up through the ice and refrozen, creating a weak top layer of ice that teams and mushers can break through.
Buser's team, after tearing up the trail during the first half, is now going slower than the race leaders. He may have spent too much energy driving his team on a blistering fast 170-mile run that gave him a four-hour lead that now has vanished.
From Unalakleet, teams head onto the frozen Bering Sea coastline and north toward the finish line in Nome about 240 miles away.
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 among the next 29 mushers to cross the finish line.
Five mushers have scratched.