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MANLEY - Musher Robert Sørlie of Hurdal, Norway, jumped into the lead early Tuesday in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Sørlie left the Interior town of Manley at 4:30 a.m., following a rest of 4 hours, 9 minutes. Sørlie dropped one dog in Manley, leaving him with 15 for the rest of the race.
He was followed by John Baker of Kotzebue, who left at 5 a.m. after a rest of 4 hours, 31 minutes, and defending champion Martin Buser, who left at 5:01 a.m. with no rest in the checkpoint. Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers left at 6 a.m. in fourth place, also with no rest in the checkpoint, while three-time winner Jeff King of Denali Park left at 7:37 a.m. after 6 hours of rest.
Many mushers prefer to rest their teams outside the early checkpoints in the race to help the dogs avoid the excitement of the crowds, and to avoid catching any contagious bugs that sometimes pass from one team to another on the trail.
By midmorning today, there were 14 teams that had left Manley and another 28 teams remaining in the second checkpoint of this year's race. From Manley, the teams have a 60-mile run over moderately hilly terrain to Tanana. Other than Sørlie, none of the top seven teams had dropped dogs and they were all still running with the 16 dogs they started with.
The restart of the race was moved north of Fairbanks for the first time, due to a lack of snow in Southcentral Alaska. As a result, the first 330 miles of the route in this year's race is new to even veteran teams and the top teams have begun jockeying for position early.
"It's anyone's game to this point," Zirkle told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. "You're not sure if the big, burly workout dogs are going to give you an advantage or, because there's so much running on the river, should you go with the little fast dogs."
"It's going to be a totally new experience for everybody on a format never tested before," Buser told the News-Miner. "I'm getting excited."
Sørlie, 45, is running only his second Iditarod, but he has already developed a reputation as a serious contender.
He finished in ninth place last year to claim top rookie honors and posted a new rookie record, finishing the race in nine days, 13 hours, 44 minutes. Prior to that no rookie had ever finished the race in less than 10 days.
Sørlie's ninth-place finish was the highest finish by a rookie, since 1992, when Montana musher Doug Swingley also finished ninth.
Sørlie, a firefighter at Gardrmoen International Airport, began mushing in 1970 and is a three-time winner of Norway's premier long-distance sled dog race, the 1,000-kilometer Finnmarksløpet.
Baker, running his eighth Iditarod, finished third last year. Buser, of Big Lake, is a four-time champion. Zirkle, making her third Iditarod run, won Alaska's other premier long-distance sled dog race, the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, in 2000.
In sixth place was Manley resident Charlie Boulding, a two-time Yukon Quest winner who left the checkpoint at 7:39 a.m. after one minute of rest. Lynda Plettner of Houston, who was the first musher to reach Manley, left in seventh place at 7:40 a.m. after a rest period of 7 hours, 39 minutes.
Boulding, 60, may be the musher with the most experience running through the first part of the rerouted trail. Over the years, Boulding has called Nenana, Manley and Tanana his home.
"Most of us don't have personal experiences on it," Boulding told the News-Miner. "In other years, you would know where the bad places are on the trail. Now, you don't know where they're coming. Just about everybody, except Charlie Boulding, may not know their way around."
Almost all the teams passed through Nenana, the first checkpoint, by late Monday. Only one musher, Todd Capistrant of Emerald, Wis., remained in Nenana at midmorning today.