WASILLA -- Sixty-four mushers and more than a thousand dogs headed out under a cloudless blue sky Sunday for the 30th running of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Last year's runner-up, Linwood Fiedler of Willow, took the early lead, coming into the Yentna checkpoint at 5:01 p.m. Sunday and leaving five minutes later. Fiedler runs summer dog tours on Norris Glacier near Juneau.
Early this morning, though, three-time champion Martin Buser of Big Lake took the lead as he led the first pack of mushers through the Finger Lake checkpoint on their way to Rainy Pass, the highest elevation on the trail at 3,160 feet and about 200 miles down the trail.
Buser left Finger Lake at 7:16 a.m., followed by DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow at 7:37 a.m. and Charlie Boudling of Manley was running third at 7:57 a.m. Other mushers to leave the Finger Lake checkpoint this morning were three-time champion Jeff King of Denali Park at 7:58 a.m., Harald Tunheim of Alta, Norway, at 8:02 a.m. and John Baker of Kotzebue at 8:07 a.m.
Sonny Lindner of Nenana and Fiedler were in Finger Lake, but had not yet left the checkpoint. Fiedler was the first musher to arrive at the checkpoint, at 2:39 a.m.
At last report, defending champion Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Mont., was in 33rd place in the field of 64 mushers. Swingley, a four-time winner who is seeking his fourth consecutive championship, reached the Skwentna checkpoint at 12:33 a.m. today.
Swingley was in no hurry, he told KNOM radio.
"Patience has always been my greatest virtue," he said just before leaving Skwentna as the sun rose today.
Swingley said some drivers have tried to get a jump on him early in previous races.
"I say they've been trying to do that for a long time and it doesn't work," he said, laughing.
With the festivities of Saturday's ceremonial start behind them, the mushers brought a focused intensity to Sunday's real start, which took place in Wasilla, 45 miles north of Anchorage.
Boulding, who drew the top starting position, checked and double checked all the gear in his sled bag as he waited for the 1,100-mile race to Nome to begin. Boulding said that, with temperatures in the low teens and rising, he was pleased to be heading out first.
"I always like to get out of here early because of the heat. My dogs aren't used to that," said Boulding, a fisherman and trapper who lives on the Tanana River in Interior Alaska. "If you're leaving way in the back you're leaving in the heat of the day."
Boulding said he would rest his dogs as the day grew warmer.
While the dogs prefer colder temperatures, race fans enjoyed the sunshine and watched from lawn chairs as the teams headed out at two-minute intervals on a trail that winds through wooded hills of spruce and birch.
More fans were waiting farther down the trail, traveling to the Yentna River on snowmobile and having Alaska-style tailgate parties as the mushers pass by.
The presence of so many snowmobiles on the trail can be a problem. Last year a musher was forced to scratch just 25 miles into the race after a snowmobile collided with his teams, injuring two of his lead dogs.
"There are going to be several hundred people out there on snowmachines," Boulding said. "When it gets dark, then it gets dangerous."
Defending champion Doug Swingley of Linoln, Mont., agreed that snowmobiles could make the first hundred miles of trail tricky.
"It's a lot of people. A lot of snowmachines. You've got to pay attention," Swinley said. "You've got to put some lead dogs up there who will pay attention."
Tunheim was at the starting line despite a badly sprained right ankle that forced him to watch Saturday's ceremonial start on television, while one of his handlers ran his team.
Tunheim injured himself while approaching the podium to accept his bib number at the pre-race banquet Thursday night. Despite a doctor's orders to stay off the foot for at least three days, he was determined to start the race.
"I'll be taking it step by step. I have a good truck in front of me," Tunheim said, referring to his 16 dogs.
Tunheim tried not to put too much weight on his right foot as he packed his sled bag and peformed last-minute chores.
A small seat that folds out from the back of his sled will help give him a break from standing and allow him to rest the ankle.
Tunheim said the injury may make it difficult to keep his balance, since going over bumps in the trail can require shifting weight from one foot to another while standing on the back of the sled. In addition, he usually uses his right foot to push the sled up hills, and he uses it to brake.
"If I'm going fast it's because I can't brake," he said with a laugh.
The teams will be traveling up frozen rivers before heading into the Alaska Range. They will reach the highest elevation of the trail -- 3,160 feet -- at Rainy Pass, about 200 miles into the race, by late today.
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