Lance Mackey, Sebastian Schnuelle in early Iditarod jostle | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Lance Mackey, Sebastian Schnuelle in early Iditarod jostle

Mary Pemberton, The Associated Press

ANCHORAGE, Alaska ” Two-time defending champion Lance Mackey and Canadian musher Sebastian Schnuelle were exchanging the lead Monday in the early going of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Mackey overtook Schnuelle early Monday, and was the first team into the Rainy Pass checkpoint, 224 miles away from Anchorage.

But while Mackey rested at the checkpoint, Schnuelle spent only five minutes there after arriving Monday afternoon and was first to leave. He was followed by Paul Gebhardt, a two-time runner-up, and Rick Swenson, the race’s only five-time winner.

Mackey was the first musher to arrive at Rainy Pass after having negotiated one of the steepest parts of the 1,100-mile trail where it descends sharply into a gorge along Happy River.

In years where the trail is icy and fast, descending into the gorge can be terrifying. But mushers were told this year that there was less to worry about on this portion of the trail because there was good snow cover for the sled runners.

Schnuelle recently won the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, a race nearly as long as the Iditarod.

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Mackey, who did not run the Quest this year so that he could help prepare an Alaska Native for his first Iditarod, put together back-to-back wins in the Quest and the Iditarod in 2007 and 2008. He is the only musher to win both races in the same year.

Sixty-seven teams took off from the restart in Willow on Sunday.

Schnuelle, who comes from Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory, won the Quest in record time. He said at the restart that he spent the time between races resting and eating junk food, mostly hamburgers. However, he said his dog team continued to train.

He was asked about the possibility of winning the Quest and the Iditarod back to back.

“You can never say you can win because there are so many others that can,” said Schnuelle, who finished 10th last year. “I’m going to try.”

From Willow, the 1,100-mile Iditarod trail winds through some forested hills. Mushers cross rough ice on the Susitna River and continue on the frozen Yentna River, eventually crossing a swampy area and a creek where “overflow” can be treacherous. Overflow occurs when water pushes up on top of already frozen ice and forms another thin layer, one that is not strong enough to support the sled.

Mushers hate overflow. They tell stories of pulling their dogs and sleds to safety, hoping the stronger layer of ice will hold.

Most of the top mushers are entered in this year’s race, including five former champions.

Thirteen mushers are women, including Aliy Zirkle, a Quest winner competing in her ninth Iditarod. Zirkle, touted as the female musher with the best chance of replacing four-time champion Susan Butcher, was in 13th place. She says the race for her is mostly about being on the trail with her dogs. But, she added, “I think that I am still right on the cusp of winning.”

The field is down to 67 teams this year, a drop from a record 96 last year. The purse also is down from $935,000 in 2008 to $610,000 this year, a drop that has many mushers grumbling, especially since the entry fee was raised to $4,000 this year and could go to $5,000 next year. Race officials attribute the drop to too much prize money last year.

Mushers this year will have to contend with near record snowfall in some places along the trail that extends from Anchorage to the gold rush town of Nome on Alaska’s western coast. The trail crosses two mountain ranges, goes along the frozen Yukon River and then extends up the Bering Sea coast to the finish line.

The Iditarod was first run in 1973 to commemorate the valiant work of dog teams in 1925. The teams were sent on the trail ” at that time used mainly to deliver mail and supplies to villages ” to bring serum to Nome to combat a deadly outbreak of diphtheria.