ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Aliy Zirkle was once held up as being the Iditarod’s best chance for becoming the sled dog race’s first female champion in two decades, and the 41-year-old musher’s time may finally have come.
With roughly two-thirds of the nearly 1,000-mile race across Alaska left to go Saturday, Zirkle, of Two Rivers, held a strong lead thanks to strategy that put a checkpoint between herself and her competitors.
“She couldn’t be in a better place,” said Allen Moore, Zirkle’s husband and an accomplished long-distance musher in his own right.
The race began March 4 with 66 teams. The total purse is $550,000 for the first 30 finishers, with the winner receiving $50,400 and a new truck. The winner is expected in Nome early next week.
Four mushers have scratched from the race already, the latest being Zoya DeNure on Saturday. She cited concern for her dogs as her team was about halfway through the race.
Zirkle — known for her big smile and exemplary dog care along the trial — pulled into the checkpoint in the village of Nulato at 6:13 a.m. Saturday but didn’t stay long before steering her dog team toward Kaltag. The trail goes on the frozen Yukon River, often declared by mushers as being the worst part of the Iditarod because of the long, boring, wind-swept stretches of nothingness.
From Kaltag, teams head to the friendly town of Unalakleet along the coast where excited children greet the mushers as if they were rock ‘n’ roll stars, asking questions about the dogs and trying to get autographs. From there, it is a little more than 200 miles along the coast to the finish line in Nome in what can turn out to be a mad-dash by teams jockeying for position.
It will be Zirkle’s job to stay ahead — something her husband said is far from a sure thing given the tough field of worthy competitors in the 2012 Iditarod.
“We have a long way to go,” Moore said. “She has a lot of people on her tail. They are not too far behind.”
One small mistake could cost Zirkle the lead, he said.
Zirkle arrived in Kaltag late Saturday morning with a more than three-hour lead on defending champion John Baker who moved into second place. 2004 champion Mitch Seavey was in third place, followed by Aaron Burmeister; Mitch’s son, Dallas Seavey; and four-time champion Jeff King.
Moore said he was going to greet his wife in Unalakleet and give her a big hug. He would refrain from giving her advice on how to win, especially since she is well-acquainted with getting to Nome, Moore said.
“I won’t be telling her what to do, that is for sure,” he said.
Moore just came off a second-place finish in the 1,000 mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race with 10 of the dogs now in his wife’s team. He lost the race by just 26 seconds. He said the team’s strong performance in the Quest gave Zirkle confidence going into the Iditarod.
Zirkle won the 2000 Quest. That led to speculation that she would be the next woman to dominate the Iditarod. She finished 11th last year, her best finish since 2005 when she also was 11th.
Zirkle has acknowledged in the past that it has taken her more time than she thought it would to figure out just how to run the Iditarod. Her goal last year was to be in the top 10.
Moore said pre-race planning for this year’s race is paying off. Instead of doing two long runs to cover more than 200 miles, Zirkle broke it into three and was able to give her team more rest than her competitors. It also allowed her to push to Galena where she took a mandatory 8-hour break and rest the team. Her competitors took longer runs and were forced to rest at the previous checkpoint in Ruby.
Zirkle put a checkpoint between herself and the other racers.
“It will be time to push as much as possible” once she gets to Unalakleet, Moore said.
“She knows she is capable of winning it. Everything just has to work out,” he said.
Moore sidestepped the question about how his wife might feel about the prospect of becoming the next woman Iditarod champion since four-time champion Susan Butcher.
Butcher dominated the Iditarod with wins from 1986-1988 and again in 1990.
Butcher retired from racing and died of leukemia in 2006.