CRIPPLE, Alaska -- The top teams in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race were set to leave the halfway point in their 1,100-mile trip to Nome Thursday night. Defending champion Doug Swingley was first into this Gold Rush ghost town, and he was expected to be the first to leave.
Swingley, of Lincoln, Mont., arrived just before 11 p.m. Wednesday night and settled in for his mandatory 24-hour layover, which meant he could get back on the trail late Thursday night.
Three other former champions arrived not long afterward, and the four shared a canvas tent in the desolate wilderness checkpoint while they waited for the 24-hour clock to run down.
But before they could get back on the trail, early leader Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof, Alaska, pulled in at 6:21 p.m. Thursday evening. Gebhardt, who took his 24-hour break at Takotna, was expected to rest in Cripple a few hours before pushing on.
Swingley says his race is going according to plan, and he actually arrived in Cripple an hour earlier than he expected.
''My confidence keeps building every time I run them,'' Swingley said of his team. ''They just keep getting better and better.''
Fellow front-runners Martin Buser and Rick Swenson, who've won the race eight times between them, echoed Swingley in praising their dogs.
Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race musher Aaron Burmeister rounds a corner near Takotna Thursday.
Buser's team is coming together at this point in the race, said the Big Lake, Alaska, musher. He had one dog, Scorpio, that wasn't performing very well, but, Buser said, ''I think he concluded that he wants to be part of the team, and that's nice.''
Asked how a musher deals with a dog who's not performing, Buser said, ''You just give him quiet support, no pressure.... You just let him figure out if he's going to be part of the show.''
Swenson said he was shaken and got slightly off his schedule when a dog on his team was injured in a collision with a tree at the Rohn checkpoint.
The dog suffered a severe neck injury when the team was spooked by two people going down the trail near the checkpoint, according to vets there. The team swerved, forcing the wheel dog into a tree. The dog, Toby, was treated at the checkpoint, then flown to Anchorage, where it was under veterinary care.
''It really hurt because he was a really good dog. He just loved being out on the Iditarod,'' Swenson said. ''Thank God those vets were there to save him.''
While the incident was upsetting, it did not shake his confidence in how he's running his race, Swenson said.
The five-time champion, from Two Rivers, Alaska, said he had come up with four different ways to run the Iditarod in his pre-race planning. Taking the 24-hour layover in Cripple was his favored option, he said.
For reaching Cripple first, Swingley captured the half-way prize of $3,000 in gold nuggets and a trophy. In a change from past years, the first five mushers to reach the halfway point are taking home gold.
Three-time champion Buser arrived in Cripple at 2:35 a.m. Thursday to win $2,000 in gold nuggets. Swenson reached the checkpoint at 2:53 a.m. and won $2,000. Rick Mackey of Nenana, Alaska, also won $2,000, reaching Cripple at 5:30 a.m. Also in the money was Ramey Smyth of Big Lake, Alaska. He was fifth into the checkpoint, arriving at 1:45 p.m. with his 24 yet to serve.
Mackey had dropped only one dog during the race, leaving him with 15. Swingley had as dozen in his team, Buser 13, and Swenson 14.
''I think I'm in a real good position. So far everything has worked out,'' Mackey said as he tossed fish chunks to his dogs at the Ophir checkpoint.
Mackey said he's a bit slower than Swingley, Buser and Swenson but they shouldn't count him out.
''When I get on the coast I can speed up. I do go like heck when I leave White Mountain,'' Mackey said, referring to the next to last checkpoint in the 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome. ''Even Doug says 'I have to lose you by then.'''
Behind the leaders at Cripple were several mushers who weren't far behind Gebhardt on the trail from Ophir. Veteran Manley musher Charlie Boulding reached Ophir a minute before Gebhardt, at 5:18 a.m. But while Gebhardt headed out at 5:25 a.m., Boulding didn't leave until 8:43 a.m.
While Boulding waited in Ophir, two other mushers went past. Former winner Jeff King of Denali Park arrived at 5:50 a.m. and left at 6:08 a.m. Mitch Seavey of Sterling, Alaska, arrived at 7:50 a.m. and left at 8:04 a.m.
Ramy Brooks followed Boulding onto the trail, arriving at Ophir at 8:45 a.m. and leaving at 8:58 a.m. Jerry Riley and Bill Cotter left at 11 a.m. after resting for just a few minutes each. DeeDee Jonrowe arrived at 11:35 a.m., rested a couple hours, and got back on the trail at 1:05 p.m
Eighty-one mushers began the race, which had its ceremonial start in Anchorage on March 4. Two mushers have scratched, leaving 79 teams in the race.
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