Linwood Fiedler, a Willow musher who finished 19th last year and had his best performance in 1998 when he was eighth, held the lead in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race late Tuesday night.
Fiedler left McGrath, which is 413 miles into the 1,100-mile race, at 7:49 p.m. Tuesday. Hot on his tail is three-time champion Martin Buser of Big Lake. Buser took off from McGrath 41 minutes after Fiedler and described his race as "right on schedule."
Running in third is another three-time champion -- Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Mont. Swingley departed McGrath at 9:24 p.m., more than 1 1/2 hours behind the leader.
From McGrath, the leaders had just 22 miles to go until Takotna, a popular place for mushers to take the one mandatory 24-hour layover in the race.
As of late Tuesday, Kasilof's Paul Gebhardt, the runner-up last year, was the only other musher in McGrath. Gebhardt actually arrived in McGrath before Swingley, but took a longer rest there. He was still resting as of 9:48 p.m.
Rounding out the top 10 in the race were three-time champion Jeff King of Denali Park, 1976 champion Jerry Riley of Nenana, Mitch Seavey of Seward, five-time champion Rick Swenson of Two Rivers, Sonny King of Spartanburg, S.C., and 1983 champion Rick Mackey of Nenana.
Sixty-eight mushers began the 1,100-mile race Saturday in Anchorage, and two had already scratched by Tuesday.
Earlier Tuesday, mushers described a tough trail into Nikolai, which is the checkpoint before McGrath.
''Miserable. Rough,'' is how Buser described the trail out of Rainy Pass to Rohn and then to Nikolai. The trail drops 1,000 feet to the Dalzell Gorge and then crosses the Farewell Burn, an area charred by a huge wildfire in 1977, leaving stumps and grass mounds that shatter mushers' sleds.
While all of Buser's dogs made it through, he said he's concerned that he's got only 11 dogs left in his team. He's had to drop dogs at checkpoints for a variety of problems, including sore shoulders and wrists.
Mushers began the race with 16-dog teams. Fiedler arrived with a full team, but left one dog in Nikolai and still had 15 when he left McGrath.
''The few I got look good,'' Buser said. In 1999, Buser left Nikolai with only 10 dogs, finishing second to Swingley that year.
''I got more this year, so things are going better,'' he said.
Also among the leaders, Swingley left McGrath with 14 dogs and Gebhardt was resting in McGrath with 13 dogs.
Jeff King said one of his dogs was injured in the Farewell Burn when she tripped on one of the sled ropes. He said he'd have to leave her at the Nikolai checkpoint, leaving him with 13 dogs. A 10-mile stretch through the burn probably had less than a couple of hundred feet of snow, he said.
Crossing Farewell Lake at night was like traveling across a mirror because it was just glare ice, King said. He had to turn his headlamp off and travel in the dark because his dogs were spooked by their own reflections.
At one point, King said he imagined sparks coming from under his runners, but knew that was impossible because they're plastic.
''I don't know how I got through that without getting banged up,'' he said.
Swenson arrived in Nikolai with all 16 dogs. He said his team is resting more than running, and he's one hour ahead of his schedule.
Two sets of trail markers out of Rohn had him wandering around some, he said. He decided to go back and go the other way when he found himself turning his team around in overflow. He advised race officials to get rid of the second set of markers so other teams wouldn't find themselves in the same mess.
''It was really bare and rough,'' he said.
Associated Press reporter Mary Pemberton contributed to this story.
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