Iditarod front-runners set speedy pace
March 11, 2009
NIKOLAI, Alaska ” Sebastian Schnuelle was the first musher to reach the Alaska Native village of Nikolai in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Schnuelle was running at a surprisingly fast pace ” Nikolai is about a third of the way into the race ” but he was quickly joined by a host of other mushers.
Hugh Neff pulled into the checkpoint 770 miles from the race finish line in Nome just one minute later.
Two-time Iditarod runner-up Paul Gebhardt arrived about a half hour after Neff, who was also the first musher back on the trail early Tuesday evening.
This early in the Iditarod ” at 1,100 miles the longest sled dog race in the world ” being first doesn’t carry much weight.
“It’s stupid,” four-time champion Jeff King said when asked about the speedy pace of this year’s race.
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King, who was second in 2008 and is competing in his 20th Iditarod, said this was just about the earliest he’d ever arrived in Nikolai.
Two-time defending champion Lance Mackey, who was seventh into Nikolai and arrived about a half-hour ahead of King, also said he wasn’t interested in getting too far out in front this early in the race.
That doesn’t mean his team couldn’t do it, he said.
“There was a time I had a foot on the track keeping them slowed,” Mackey said when asked how his team was performing. “It was incredible.”
Schnuelle, a Canadian musher, is coming off a first-place finish in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, a race nearly as long as the Iditarod, and he did it in record time.
King was ninth into Nikolai, the first Alaska Native village mushers encounter on their way to Nome. The arrival of the Iditarod is a welcome break for residents of the remote village, reachable only by plane, snowmobile or boat. The village’s population, at fewer than 100, doubles when the Iditarod mushers come through.
“It means spring is here,” said Betty Petruska, who runs the village post office.
Petruska was hoping to make a little extra money by selling credit card holders and small purses made from moose hide that she adorned with beads and embroidery. She also had beaded earrings in the shapes of ducks, angels and owls for sale.
“It is so much fun,” said her sister, Mary Ellen Kimball, who was waiting at the checkpoint for four-time champion Martin Buser to arrive.
“He is so cool,” she said.
Mitch Seavey, the 2004 champion, was 12th into Nikolai, arriving about 3 1/2 hours behind Schnuelle.
“I am a little surprised at the pace some of them are taking,” he said. “I think they are ahead of schedule. They’re not stopping.”
The unusually warm weather ” temperatures were above 20 degrees Tuesday afternoon ” also was hard on the dogs, which prefer to run in colder weather.
Aliy Zirkle, a former Quest winner who was 10th into Nikolai, said her dogs had lost their appetite in the warm weather. They weren’t eating well, a serious concern for any musher who expects their team to perform over the long haul.
Zirkle said Schnuelle’s team looked particularly good.
“They went by and they were all business,” she said.
Gebhardt, who had been leading the race for a time, said he was having a good run until the last stretch where he hit a stump and broke his sled.
The area on the Iditarod trail where Gebhardt had the mishap is filled with dead tree stumps and is notorious for busting up mushers and sleds alike nearly every year.
“I just happened to miss all of them except one. At least we’re across that stuff,” he said.
Race marshal Mark Nordman reported the first dog death of the race on Tuesday. He says a 6-year-old male named Victor on musher Jeff Holt’s team died between the Rainy Pass and Rohn checkpoints.
Bob Hickel, a 62-year-old from Anchorage, became the first musher to scratch, withdrawing at the Finger Lake checkpoint. That leaves 66 mushers in the race. The winner will receive $69,000 and a new pickup truck and should arrive in Nome sometime next week.
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