ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Dallas Seavey was leading the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Monday, but Aliy Zirkle was close on his heels, leaving the village of Koyuk about 20 minutes later to prevent the son of 2004 champion Mitch Seavey from running away with the race.
“They know at this point they have got to keep really close,” said race spokeswoman Erin McLarnon.
Mushers try to stay within striking distance of the leader at this point in the nearly 1,000 mile race from Anchorage to Nome. That’s because mushers are required to rest their teams for eight hours in White Mountain before heading the 77 miles to the finish line.
The closer the top teams can stay to the leader going into White Mountain the better chance they have of winning.
Sixty-six mushers began the race March 4. The winner will receive $50,400 and a new truck. The total purse of $550,000 will be shared by the first 30 finishers.
This year’s winner likely won’t break defending champion John Baker’s record-breaking time of 8 days, 18 hours and 46 minutes, McLarnon said. It appears the race leaders are moving about two hours slower this year.
Aaron Burmeister was in third place Monday morning, more than two hours behind Seavey. Baker was in fourth.
McLarnon said she expects the race winner to cross the finish line sometime Tuesday.
Zirkle had been leading until Seavey — described by his father as “fiercely competitive” — made a move and erased her more than two-hour lead with what was a faster-moving team. But Zirkle’s team gained on Seavey’s coming to Elim, taking an hour less to cover the 50 miles from the previous checkpoint at Shaktoolik.
Several teams scratched and one was withdrawn Sunday. They included four-time champion Jeff King who scratched after his dogs didn’t want to go the last few miles into the checkpoint at Unalakleet and were brought in by snowmachine. McLarnon said it appeared King’s team had a stomach ailment.
Race officials withdrew Jake Berkowitz in Unalakleet after he cut his hand while trying to separate two blocks of frozen fish to snack his dogs.
“It just sounded like the knife slipped,” McLarnon.
Mitch Seavey met the same fate last year when he nearly sliced off a finger opening a bale of bedding straw for his dogs. He was in seventh place Monday.
Mitch’s 25-year-old son, Dallas, who finished fourth last year, arrived first in Koyuk at 3:17 a.m. Monday after driving his team on a trail cut through jumbled sea ice and braving a minus 25-degree wind chill.
Zirkle pulled into the checkpoint about an hour-and-a-half later.
Teams now head to Elim 48 miles away. The trail runs along the sea ice for about 12 miles before cutting inland, allowing teams to get off the windblown coast. Teams cross a 300-foot summit and then drop into a valley where the winds also can be fierce. For those mushers that need a break, there’s a shelter cabin 25 miles from Elim. This late in the race, the front runners probably will press on.