Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Update Iditarod

Aliy Zirkle leads her dogs from the Nikolai checkpoint Tuesday
Photo from anchorage daily News

Article From the Alaska Dispatch

Zirkle and other Iditarod leaders check in at Takotna - by Craig Medred

Update: Aliy Zirkle and other leaders, including John Baker, Mitch Seavey and Dallas Seavey were the first mushers into the Takotna checkpoint on the Iditarod Trail early Wednesday morning.

McGRATH -- All that was missing here Tuesday night were pit crews as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race sped into this village on the banks of the Kuskokwim River and then out again almost as fast. And, of course, the Iditarod doesn't allow pit crews. On the 1,000 miles of trail from Willow to Nome, mushers are by rule on their own; no outside assistance allowed.

Not that there would have been time for much here. As a bonfire raged outside the local community center and ice lanterns glowed to guide teams into town, a string of race leaders arrived one-by-one to basically sign in and sigh out at the check point. Former Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race champ Aliy Zirkle from Two Rivers was the first to arrived at 8:32 p.m. The race leader for more than 100 miles now, she seemed in good spirits.

She took but minutes to satisfy checkers she had her mandatory gear in the sled, check in and then leave into the snowy night on the trail toward Takotna with the 16 dogs with which she started the race in Willow on Sunday still pulling strongly. She gave no hint as to whether she planned to take the one, 24-hour rest required of all mushers at the next checkpoint -- an old mining town and a popular place for the big break in recent years -- or push on to the Iditarod's halfway point or beyond before putting on the brakes.

As she was leaving, with the full moon fighting to try to push back a foggy sky full of huge snowflakes, defending Iditarod champ John Baker from Kotzebue was pulling onto the river outside of town. He rolled into the checkpoint at 9:07 p.m., a little more than a half hour behind Zirkle. He was all business, too. He dropped a dog he said was tired. He asked a gathering crowd to create a hole to help steer team back toward the trail.

"Thank you for coming out tonight,'' he said. "Time to go."

Someone asked for an autograph. He quickly obliged and then headed north, slapping hands with some fans who lined the street as he headed out of town. Less than 20 minutes later, two more Iditarod champs rolled in. Mitch Seavey from Sterling led four-time winner Jeff King into town by only 5 minutes at 9:23 pm. Seavey didn't say much. King seemed mainly interested in finding out what time Zirkle had arrived.

"My dogs want to go," he said, and then he was off. Neither he nor the team seemed to be showing much sign of the year he took off for "retirement." Somewhere just back along the river, Dallas Seavey from Willow, Mitch's son, was coming next and expected to next add to the string of champions. Dallas won the 1,000 miles Quest in 2011 before challenging Baker and the rest of the leaders in last year's Iditarod.

He couldn't quite parlay Quest success into Iditarod success, but did better than Zirkle who abandoned the Quest in favor of Iditarod more than a decade ago only to struggle. She has yet to crack the top-10. But this year looks to be a whole different game. She's been the dominate player to this point in a race where the competition is by no means easy.

Baker won the Iditarod last years after a decade of top-10 finishes. Mitch Seavey has been a regular top-10 contender and one once. King has won both the Quest and the Iditarod, the latter four-times. One more would time him with Rick Swenson from Two Rivers as the winningest Iditarod musher of all time.

Dallas Seavey is trying to bootstrap his way to the top of the Iditarod heap coming off his 2011 Quest victory and not far behind him on the trail Tuesday were a couple more long-distance champions: Hugh Neff from Tok, who won the 2012 Quest just weeks ago, and four-time Iditarod champ Lance Mackey from Fairbanks who rocked the world of sled-dog racing by winning the Quest and the Iditarod -- the world's toughest dog races -- back to back, and then doing it again, and then running his Iditarod record to four straight victories before finally finishing somewhere other than number one.

Trying to get back to his winning ways this year, he was expected to join the parade of champions streaming through here Tuesday night as the snow began to ease and the clouds parted to reveal a curtain of green northern lights dancing across the near-Arctic sky.

Alaska Dispatch staff writer Jill Burke contributed from the Iditarod Trail.

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