DAWSON CITY, Yukon Territory (AP) -- About the only person calling Peter Butteri the surprise leader of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race is -- Peter Butteri.
The Tok musher, who is gaining a cheering section along the 1,000-mile trail, led the field out of Dawson City at 11:30 a.m. Saturday with a head start of more than two hours over Thomas Tetz after completing the Quest's mandatory 36-hour break in this historic gold-rush town.
''I still to this point don't understand what's happened to everybody else,'' Butteri said Friday.
The five front-runners -- Butteri, Tetz, Hans Gatt, William Kleedehn and Joran Freeman -- say they are comfortable with their position and the possibility of being the first to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, finish line, now four or five days away.
Standing in the way, though, is the Quest's longest section of trail without a checkpoint. After leaving Dawson, mushers push over King Solomon's Dome, Eureka Dome and the Black Hills, 200 of the toughest miles the race has to offer, before arriving in Pelly Crossing. From there, it's 250 miles to Whitehorse.
Mushers in the middle of the lead pack know they're dark horses to win. Their goal is to improve their position and make sure they finish well in the top 10.
Everyone figures Butteri will be tough to catch, considering he's running the best Quest of his career.
He'll leave Dawson with a fair, but not secure lead.
While some of the top five, most notably Freeman, have tinkered with Quest strategy, Butteri has stayed the course.
''The race I'm running right now is a traditional Quest,'' Butteri said. ''I'm not doing anything that hasn't been done for years and years and years.''
Gatt of Atlin, British Columbia, says he made up time he squandered getting lost on Eagle Summit by skimming on rest for his team over the last 50 miles to Dawson City on Thursday. The gambit worked, but didn't erase the disappointment of losing the trail.
''I could have a two-hour lead, which still bothers me a little bit,'' the musher said of his lost time. ''But at this point in the race, third is not a bad position to be in.''
Freeman, who is lurking close enough to overtake the lead, said, ''I wanted to be within striking distance. In that regard, I'm happy with where I'm at.
''You need to be within a couple of hours of those teams to make a move,'' the Two Rivers musher said.
Meanwhile, musher Bill Steyer, a middle-of-the-packer in seventh place, says he's trying to maintain his position. The Fairbanks musher has been having a fast run after finishing 14th in the Quest last year and 20th in his first race. While the top six concentrate on Butteri, Steyer has a different focus.
''There's a few strong teams behind me,'' the musher said. ''I've got to be smart.''
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