By RACHEL D’ORO
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Four-time champion Martin Buser held on to the lead Saturday in Alaska’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, hoping to be only the second musher to ever claim a fifth title in the race’s 40-year-history.
But plenty of competitors were hot in pursuit in the 1,000-mile race, and gaining on the 54-year-old veteran from Big Lake, Alaska. Teams have been traveling in deep snow followed by deep overflows in a trail deteriorated by above-freezing temperatures. Some stretches also were marked by glare ice.
On the seventh day of the race, Buser was first out of the checkpoint at Eagle Island, where a single cabin is the only dwelling in the otherwise uninhabited stretch of trail. Buser dropped two dogs there and left with 11 dogs at 2:41 a.m. Saturday to begin the 60-mile run to the next checkpoint at Kaltag, which is 346 miles from the race’s finishing point in Nome.
Last year’s runner-up, Aliy Zirkle, left Eagle Island with 13 dogs more than three hours later. The Two Rivers veteran was followed 29 minutes later by 2004 winner Mitch Seavey of Seward and his 12-dog team. According to sled positioning trackers, Zirkle, Seavey and other teams out of Eagle Island were traveling at faster speeds than Buser’s team and many had more dogs.
Zirkle and Seavey were especially close to Buser on the Kaltag approach early Saturday afternoon, with Zirkle running 9 miles behind him and Seavey a mile behind Zirkle.
The front-runners are expected to reach the Nome finish line early next week.
The Anchorage Daily News reported Saturday that a badly ailing dog had been taken from Eagle Island to Kaltag, where it was being treated and could be flown out. A race judge said she didn’t know whose team the dog belonged to. Iditarod officials could not immediately be reached for further information, but many mushers left dogs behind at Eagle Island.
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 rests and some — including Buser and most of his chasers — have taken one of two mandatory 8-hour rests. Everyone has to take the second 8-hour layover at the checkpoint at White Mountain, 77 miles from Nome.
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.”
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.