NIKOLAI, Alaska -- Paul Gebhardt led a closely packed group of mushers across the treacherous Farewell Burn, as leaders in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race left the mountains Tuesday and entered the chilly flatlands of Alaska's vast Interior.
Gebhardt, from Kasilof, arrived in this Athabaskan Indian village at 11:30 a.m. Alaska time, nearly two hours in front of three-time Iditarod winner Jeff King of Denali Park.
Gebhardt is running his fifth Iditarod, and this is the first time he has been in front.
''I like it,'' he said of his lead while feeding frozen salmon to his dogs, ''(but) I wish it was about 20 hours.''
After resting his team for more than five hours, Gebhardt pointed his sled toward McGrath, 48 miles away, at 4:58 p.m.
Defending champion Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Mont., drove his team of 15 dogs into the checkpoint a few minutes after King. An hour or so later, Mitch Seavey of Seward, John Barron of Montana Creek and Ramy Brooks of Healy all pulled in to rest their teams.
Three other mushers -- Jerry Riley of Nenana, John Baker of Kotzebue and Tim Osmar of Clam Gulch -- all reached Nikolai before 5 p.m.
Schoolchildren drew up a welcome banner for mushers that they hung on the side of their school. Inside the school, students helped serve chili, cornbread and tea to mushers and others.
''You can see them and talk to them,'' said Jeremiah Tichnor, 10, of rubbing elbows with the mushers, many of whom are Alaska celebrities.
The 80 miles of trail from Rohn Roadhouse, at the base of the Alaska Range, to Nikolai crosses the barren remains of a 1984 wildfire before heading into spruce and alder forest punctuated by open swamps.
Tuesday's weather was sunny and mild, with temperatures reaching into the 30s.
''Look at them -- no one is shivering, they're stretched out, they're good,'' King said in Nikolai as his dogs lay basking in the sun.
Gebhardt, who finished sixth last year, said his strategy to rest his team during the heat of the day and run them at night had given him the early lead.
''They're going good. I'm happy. They race pretty hard,'' Gebhardt said Monday, as he prepared freeze-dried food for his dogs.
Gebhardt took it easy on his team between Rohn and Nikolai, covering the distance in more than 14 hours. By comparison, King made the trip in just over eight hours.
Another 25 mushers were on the trail between Rohn and Nikolai as of late Tuesday afternoon. That group included three-time winner Martin Buser of Big Lake, five-time champ Rick Swenson of Two Rivers and perennial frontrunner DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow.
A record 81 teams took to the trail Sunday from Wasilla to officially begin the 1,150-mile race to the Gold Rush city of Nome. Two teams have pulled out of the race so far.
The race was begun to commemorate the lifesaving relay of diphtheria serum to Nome by mushers in 1925. Swingley holds the race record of 9 days, 2 hours, 42 minutes set in 1995.
The teams, which include 29 rookies, are competing for a share of a $525,000 purse, the largest ever. The winner gets $60,000 and a new pickup truck. Prize money will be paid to the first 30 finishers.
Through 9 p.m. Tuesday
Musher Checkpoint Dogs Time in Time out
1. Paul Gebhardt Nikolai 14 11:30 a.m. 4:52 p.m.
2. Martin Buser Nikolai 16 7:10 p.m. 7:23 p.m.
3. Doug Swingley Nikolai 15 1:28 p.m. 7:25 p.m.
4. Jeff King Nikolai 15 1:20 p.m. 7:28 p.m.
5. Charlie Boulding Nikolai 16 7:33 p.m. 7:40 p.m.
6. DeeDee Jonrowe Nikolai 16 8:03 p.m. 8:52 p.m.
7. Mitch Seavey Nikolai 16 2:32 p.m.
8. John Barron Nikolai 16 2:34 p.m.
9. Ramy Brooks Nikolai 14 2:42 p.m.
10. Jerry Riley Nikolai 15 4:24 p.m.
11. John Baker Nikolai 13 4:53 p.m.
12. Tim Osmar Nikolai 15 4:54 p.m.
13. Rick Mackey Nikolai 16 5:47 p.m.
14. Bill Cotter Nikolai 14 5:52 p.m.
15. Hans Gatt Nikolai 14 6:17 p.m.
16. David Sawatzky Nikolai 15 6:31 p.m.
17. Aaron Burmeister Nikolai 13 6:46 p.m.
18. Zack Steer Nikolai 15 6:54 p.m.
19. Raymie Redington Nikolai 16 7:05 p.m.
20. Tony Willis Nikolai 14 7:18 p.m.
Other peninsula mushers
22. Jon Little Nikolai 16 8:34 p.m.
39. John Bramante Rohn 16 12:23 p.m.
40. James Wheeler Rohn 14 12:33 p.m.
46. Caleb Banse Rohn 16 2:03 p.m.
57. Bob Hempstead Rainy Pass 15 3:07 a.m. 5:40 p.m.
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