Iditarod leaders set fast pace

Posted: Tuesday, March 09, 2004

RAINY PASS More than 200 hundred miles into the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Bill Cotter gave his team a long rest Monday while he mulled over the nasty bump on his forehead.

Cotter said he got the injury when he encountered a log on the trail coming into the Rainy Pass checkpoint, 224 miles from Anchorage, but still remembered the No. 1 lesson of mushing: Hang on to your team.

''I tipped over, landed in the snow and hit a tree. I held on,'' said Cotter, who is racing in his 18th Iditarod after not competing last year and coming in a disappointing 27th in 2002.

Mushers began serious racing Sunday at the restart in Willow, moved 25 miles north this year because of icy trail conditions closer to Anchorage. From Willow, mushers followed frozen glacial rivers and then traveled through swamps and thin forests. Then, it was a steep climb toward the Rainy Pass checkpoint in the Alaska Range, elevation 3,160.

While Cotter, of Nenana, was the first musher to arrive at Rainy Pass at 6:25 a.m., he wasn't the first musher out. Four-time winner Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Mont., was leading the race, with three-time winner Jeff King of Denali Park in second and Anna Bondarenko of Chugiak in third. Bondarenko is competing in her second Iditarod. She was 53rd her rookie year in 2000.

It normally takes mushers nine or 10 days to reach Nome, but race officials are expecting a fast-paced race this year because of good trail conditions. Four-time champion Martin Buser of Big Lake holds the record of 8 days, 22 hours and 46 minutes achieved in 2002. He is the only racer to finish in less than nine days. The pace of the 2004 race surprised even Rick Swenson of Two Rivers, the race's only five-time winner, who followed Cotter out of the Rainy Pass checkpoint Monday afternoon.

''I'm surprised, impressed, one or both,'' said Swenson, who had a mishap of his own to contend with. He said one of his sled runners broke about 15 miles from the checkpoint and he had to repair it.

While his sled's performance was less than perfect, Swenson said his dog team was moving well.

''Team's doing great,'' he said.

Two Rivers musher Ken Anderson said the front-runners in his opinion were going too fast and he would hold his team back for a while. Anderson is competing in his fourth Iditarod.

''I've just been taking it real easy and resting the dogs when they need it,'' Anderson said, as he prepared a meal of kibble and horse meat for his dogs. ''The normal guys are fast at the start like they usually are. It's just a matter if they can keep their speed.''

Ray Redington Jr. of Two Rivers said he began the restart in Willow in 50th position and for the first 24 hours of racing had been trying to figure out how to pass teams. He was 23rd into Rainy Pass.

''It is hard to do,'' said Redington. ''Everyone has nice fast dogs.''

With skies sunny and temperatures at a warmish 20 degrees, about 20 teams were resting at the Rainy Pass checkpoint rather than risking overheating their teams.

''It's so hot now. I really didn't want to run in the heat of the day,'' said Anderson.

Ed Iten of Kotzebue, who finished ninth in 2003, took advantage of the nice weather to get a cat nap curled up on the top of his sled, while his dogs napped on beds of hay.

When asked if he can sleep well on his sled, Iten answered ''no'' and pulled his parka over his head.

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