TAKOTNA -- Defending champion Doug Swingley closed in on leader Linwood Fiedler Wednesday, while tired dogs forced many mushers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race to give their teams a break here.
Fiedler, competing in his 13th Iditarod, rested his team for just a half-hour at Ophir, a gold-mining ghost town 443 miles from Anchorage, before pressing on toward Iditarod, 90 miles away. Iditarod is roughly the halfway point in the 1,100-mile race.
''It looks to me like he has a thunderbolt by the tail and he's hanging on,'' said three-time champion Jeff King of Denali Park, who decided to give his team a long rest at Takotna.
Fiedler, a Willow musher who finished 19th last year, placed in the top 10 in 1990 and 1998, finishing eighth both times. Swingley has dominated the race for two years. Last year he set the race record, reaching Nome in nine days and 58 minutes.
Sixty-eight teams began the trek from Anchorage to Nome on Sunday. Two mushers have scratched: Chuck King of Tempe, Ariz., who has AIDS and was competing as an inspiration to others, and Mike Nosko of Willow, who withdrew after a snowmachiner hit and injured his team.
Swingley gave his team no rest at Ophir, pushing through at 7:35 a.m. and gaining on Fiedler, who had left at 7 a.m. Mitch Seavey of Seward reached Ophir at 9:40 a.m. and settled in, followed by John Baker of Kotzebue at 12:43 p.m. Both are apparently taking their required long rest there.
Rick Mackey, the 1983 winner, came through Ophir at 2:10 p.m., heading out eight minutes later to join the two leaders on the trail to Iditarod.
Mushers are required to give their teams a 24-hour rest at some checkpoint on the trail. Teams also are required to take an eight-hour rest along the Yukon River and at White Mountain near the finish.
King said better-trained teams are allowing more mushers -- not just the top racers -- to go further before taking the mandatory 24-hour rest, increasing the competitiveness of the race.
That worked to Swingley's advantage in 1999, King said. Swingley was just two hours ahead of him when a storm separated Swingley from the other teams. He crossed the finish line in Nome more than 10 hours ahead of the competition. Three-time champion Martin Buser was second. King finished seventh.
''It was just divine intervention in '99 between us,'' King said.
The weather worked to King's advantage in 1993. He was between Safety and Nome that year when a storm separated him from the others, he said. He pulled into Nome about an hour and a half in front of DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow to win the race.
Swingley could be making a mistake this year by pushing his team too far before resting them, King said.
''Those dogs aren't made of steel,'' he said.
King and Martin Buser will have a chance to overtake the leaders, since they'll head out 20 or 21 hours after Fiedler, but with the 24-hour rest already behind them.
Three-time champion Buser said every musher tries to keep to his game plan, but ultimately it's the welfare of the dogs that dictates.
Mushers use the long rest not only to catch up on sleep but to spend more time tending to their dogs. Routine care involves putting ointment between the pads of their feet to keep them from splitting, and massaging sore muscles. Veterinarians also check the dogs at each checkpoint before allowing them to continue.
Buser wanted to go further but his team wanted to rest a checkpoint earlier at McGrath, so he said they compromised at Tokotna. He's already dropped five dogs.
Several other leading mushers, including five-time champion Rick Swenson of Two Rivers and Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof, who came in second last year, chose Takotna for their 24-hour rest.
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