EAGLE ISLAND, Alaska -- Defending champion Doug Swingley is just where he wants to be -- leading the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race more than halfway to Nome. But Jeff King is just four hours back.
Swingley, of Lincoln, Mont., left the Eagle Island checkpoint Saturday at 1:55 p.m. after a six-hour rest. He headed out on the Yukon River toward the finish line 421 miles away.
King rested five hours and 17 minutes before heading out at 5:50 Saturday afternoon, putting him just less than four hours behind.
Linwood Fiedler of Willow was expected to leave at 7:29 p.m. after completing a mandatory eight-hour rest.
''I like to get out on my own,'' said Swingley, who won the last two years by extending his lead the second half of the race until it became insurmountable. ''Once I get these guys off my back, it starts to get fun.''
Swingley, a three-time champion and the only non-Alaskan to win the Iditarod, pulled into Nome in 1999 more than 10 hours ahead of the competition. Last year, he broke his own race record by more than 13 hours. He was five hours ahead of runner-up Paul Gebhardt.
King, also a three-time champion, led going out of Anvik this time, but Swingley regained the lead when King took a required eight-hour rest in Grayling, on the way to Eagle Island. Swingley had already taken his required Yukon River break.
Competitors must take a 24-hour rest and two 8-hour breaks during the race.
Swingley said he nearly turned back just outside of Grayling because conditions were such that his team had to break trail. Snow drifts were 2 feet deep and the dogs kept getting off the trail into chest-deep snow.
''It was nasty, and I'm pretty tough,'' Swingley said of the stretch of trail along the Yukon River.
Fiedler said he had the same experience with his team, describing the trail as a ''slow slog.'' Even though Swingley was breaking the trail, the wind was strong enough to fill it with snow again by the time his dog team came along.
''They were wandering around trying to find the trail,'' Fiedler said.
King was moving along much more swiftly, however, and said if his team could keep up the pace it had been running, Swingley's plan of leaving him and the others behind might not work out.
''I think they will really shine once we get off the Yukon,'' he said. ''If they stay this much faster, I'm going to catch him.''
King made the run from Grayling to Eagle Island in seven hours and 43 minutes, more that two hours faster than Swingley's nine hours, 50 minutes.
Mushers often rest between checkpoints, so it's tough to gauge relative speeds. Still, King made up more than two hours, pulling into Eagle Island about four and a half hours after Swingley arrived. But according to KNOM radio, no musher has made up that much time on the leader in any previous race.
Jerry Riley was also in Eagle Island Saturday afternoon, followed by five-time winner Rick Swenson. Riley was six and a half hours behind the leader, Swenson eight. Behind them were Gebhardt, Martin Buser, Sonny King of South Carolina, John Baker, and Rick Mackey.
Aaron Burmeister of Nome pulled into the Anvik checkpoint Saturday morning in 17th place. He said that's about 20 places better than he's been at this point in his previous four Iditarods. He finished 30th last year.
Burmeister predicted that some of the teams ahead of him would begin to fade in the next 100 miles if they tried to keep up with the leaders.
''They are not going to last too long,'' he said. ''They are making some big gambles to keep up.''
Mushers have complained about too little snow, and about ice on the trail that has made it hard on the teams, forcing many mushers to drop dogs at the race checkpoints because of sore feet, ankles and shoulders. Three-time winner Buser was down to nine dogs, while most of the other leading mushers were running 11 to 13.
Race officials said two dogs died Friday, but both mushers were allowed to continue in the race after official found no signs of mistreatment or negligence.
One was a dog named Carhartt that had been dropped Tuesday by Kasilof musher Jon Little, who was in 19th place Saturday. He said he left the dog behind because it looked tired and wasn't eating well.
The dog died of an uncommon bacterial infection of the chest cavity lining, according to necropsy results released by race officials. They said trail veterinarians who took in the dog at the Nikolai checkpoint saw nothing indicating a serious medical problem.
The dog was released Thursday to a recreational musher who has cared for dropped dogs for four years. She found the dog dead Friday morning.
The other dog fatality occurred on the trail from Iditarod to Shageluk Friday evening. The three-year-old male named Dan was in the team of Hans Gatt, who was running 15th on Saturday.
In response to critics, race officials have gone to great lengths to monitor dog health on the trail, with teams of volunteer veterinarians at every checkpoint.
One dog died in last year's race, and one dog died the year before.
Fifty-nine mushers remained in the 1,100-mile race to Nome Friday. Eight have scratched, and one was officially withdrawn for having a non-competitive team.
Racer Chkpt Dogs Time In Time Out
1. D. Swingley Eagle Island 12 7:56 a.m. 1:55 p.m.
2. J. King Eagle Island 11 12:33 p.m. 5:50 p.m.
3. L. Fiedler Eagle Island 12 11:29 a.m. 7:29 p.m.
4. J. Riley Eagle Island 11 2:45 p.m.
5. R. Swenson Eagle Island 13 4:08 p.m.
6. P. Gebhardt Eagle Island 10 6:44 p.m.
7. S. King Grayling 15 5:35 a.m. 11:42 a.m.
8. M. Buser Grayling 9 4:50 a.m. 12:16 p.m.
9. J. Baker Grayling 15 8 a.m. 1:47 p.m.
10. R. Mackey Grayling 11 9:31 a.m. 1:58 p.m.
11. D. Jonrowe Grayling 11 9:10 a.m. 2:39 p.m.
12. R. Smyth Grayling 9 9:40 a.m. 6 p.m.
13. R. Brooks Grayling 9 12:36 p.m. 6:40 p.m.
14. Gatt Grayling 10 12:32 p.m. 6:45 p.m.
15. Halter Grayling 13 12:34 p.m. 6:47 p.m.
16. C. Boulding Grayling 10 2:58 p.m. 7 p.m.
17. M. Seavey Grayling 10 8:05 a.m.
18. A. Burmeister Grayling 9 2:10 p.m.
19. J. Little Grayling 13 3 p.m.
20. T. Osmar Grayling 11 4:15 p.m.
Other peninsula mushers
36. Dan Seavey Shageluk 14 3:32 p.m.
46. l. Mackey Iditarod 10 3:12 a.m. 2:40 p.m.
53. Danny Seavey Iditarod 14 3:15 p.m.
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