UNALAKLEET, Alaska (AP) -- Barring disaster, defending champion Doug Swingley was so far ahead Sunday in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race that it is nearly impossible to catch him, his competitors said.
Swingley of Lincoln, Mont., left this checkpoint 851 miles from the race start in Anchorage at 9:34 a.m., after completing the 90-mile run from Kaltag in about nine hours. He reached Shaktoolik, 171 miles from the finish line in Nome, at 2:17 p.m.
Swingley had the checkpoint to himself during a six-hour break here Sunday. And with his nearest challenger hours behind him, the Montana musher wasn't feeling lonely.
''I just like being by myself where I'm not affected by anybody else,'' he said.
Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof arrived one hour and 17 minutes after Swingley's departure.
Gebhardt said he got a chance to see Swingley's team up close on the Kaltag River.
''He passed me on the river. He was flying,'' Gebhardt said.
If Swingley keeps up the same pace, he could cross the finish line about 250 miles away in Nome sometime Tuesday afternoon to complete the race in about nine days. Swingley set the course record for the southern route in 1995 with a time of nine days, two hours and 42 seconds set in 1995.
Gebhardt, who is competing in his fourth Iditarod and finished sixth last year, said Swingley can't be overtaken at this point, even if he slows his team from its blistering 10 mph pace.
''He has to have a problem, a big problem, like his sled falling into the ocean,'' Gebhardt said.
Gebhart hit the trail again at 4:25 p.m.
As for teams falling farther behind, they're not trying to catch Swingley at this point, Gebhardt said. Mushers, such as three-time winner Martin Buser of Big Lake and the race's only five-time winner Rick Swenson of Two Rivers, have been reduced to a ''maintenance run'' where they've given up trying to win, he said.
Ramy Brooks of Healy, who arrived third at 11:58 a.m., said his team was running as well as he hoped but Swingley was too far ahead to catch. He was looking forward to the race being over.
''My goal is to get there and get it all done with,'' said Brooks, who last year won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest, a race many mushers consider tougher than the Iditarod.
The only hope for the other mushers was if Swingley got caught in a storm along the Bering Sea Coast on way to Nome or something else unexpected occurred.
''Unless some major catastrophe happens, ... it's his race,'' Brooks said.
Charlie Boulding of Manley moved into second place Sunday when he passed through the Unalakleet checkpoint without resting his dog team. Boulding, a 58-year-old trapper, is running his seventh Iditarod and finished fifth last year. His best finish was in 1998 when he finished third.
Three-time Iditarod winner Jeff King of Denali Park, fifth into Unalakleet, said if Swingley continues to have good fortune and his dog team keeps up the pace he could break his 1995 record.
''Doug really poured it on, didn't he? It's amazing,'' said King.
Gebhardt said Swingley's dogs may have the advantage because the Montanan trains them in the mountains where the air is thinner. When he brings them to Alaska, they perform well in what for them is oxygen-rich air.
''There's nothing we can do about that,'' Gebhardt said.
Swingley said he planned to slow his team down between here and the next checkpoint at Shaktoolik 42 miles away. Even if he kept up the same pace, he said he didn't think he could beat his record.
''I think I'm already off record pace,'' he said.
Swingley was comfortable enough with his team's performance to change leaders in Unalakleet, putting an inexperienced 2-year-old, Cloud, next to her mother, Stormy. He attached a line between mother and daughter to help Cloud get the hang of being a leader.
''I'm not worried about anything,'' Swingley said when asked how his race was going.
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