By MARY PEMBERTON
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — With less than 250 miles to go in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Mitch Seavey took the lead Sunday after he was first to reach Unalakleet.
The 2004 champion was greeted by dozens of townspeople and awarded $2,500 in gold nuggets and a trophy.
Seavey pulled into Unalakleet at 10:13 a.m., only 15 minutes ahead of Aaron Burmeister. Aliy Zirkle who had been leading out Kaltag — the last checkpoint along the Yukon River — slipped to third place.
“It was a long run. I think my dogs are kind of tired from yesterday on the river,” Seavey said as reported by 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.”
Seavey made the 90-mile trip along the Bering Sea coastline in a little more than 12 ½ hours, going at 6.72 mph in the nearly 1,000 mile race from Anchorage to Nome.
Seavey’s son, Dallas — the race’s defending champion — was in seventh place Sunday. Four-time champion Martin Buser, who has led much of the race, was in fourth place.
Mushers reported very difficult trail conditions on the Yukon River that has 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 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.