ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- Jeff King of Denali Park was the first musher through the tent checkpoint of Finger Lake today as leaders in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race began their long climb toward Rainy Pass.
King, who has racked up three wins in his 11 Iditarods, left Finger Lake at 4:11 a.m. (AST) Monday. Martin Buser from Big Lake and another three-time winner, was running two minutes behind.
Sonny King of Spartanburg, S.C., was third, leaving Finger Lake at 5:34 a.m.
Then came Jerry Riley of Nenana, checking out at 5:55 a.m.; Jim Lanier of Chugiak, leaving at 6:20; Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof, at 6:34, and Linwood Fiedler of Willow was running seventh, departing at 6:35 a.m.
Sonny King, who placed 18th last year, noted that he was the only person from a non-snow area ever to break the Iditarod's Top 20.
''Each year, my goal is to get to Nome, and I sort of leave it up to the dog team as to how fast we're going to get there,'' King said in a pre-race interview. ''Seems like last year they were in a hurry.''
Rainy Pass is the highest point on the Iditarod Trail, at 3,160 feet. The checkpoint at Rainy Pass Lodge is 30 miles up a treacherous stretch of trail from Finger Lake.
Weather was on the minds of many of the mushers Sunday as they gave their sleds a last-minute check for required gear. While it was sunny in Willow as the teams set out, forecasts warned of a large storm moving in.
If the weather gets bad, the best strategy is to keep moving, Jeff King said. Sometimes, however, that's not possible.
Mushers have been known to zip themselves inside their sled bags for protection while waiting out storms.
''I can freeze to death just as good as anybody else,'' joked Charlie Boulding of Manley.
Sixty-eight teams are entered in the 1,100-mile race, which is held each year to honor sled dogs and mushers who in 1925 delivered lifesaving diphtheria serum to Nome. Twenty-two of the mushers are rookies.
They're competing for a share of a record $550,000 purse, with the winner taking home $62,857 and a new pickup truck.
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