ROHN, Alaska - Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof was first out this cabin checkpoint as leaders in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race moved onto the chill flatlands of the Alaska Interior to make the bumpy run across the Farewell Burn.
Gebhardt left Rohn at 9:13 p.m. Monday, or more than two hours ahead of two-time-winner Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Mont.,who departed at 11:35. Mitch Seavey of Seward was running third, leaving Rohn at 29 minutes past midnight.
Then came Charlie Boulding of Nenana, at 5:03 a.m.; three-time winner Martin Buser of Big Lake, at 5:10; three-time winner Jeff King of Denali Park, at 5:15, and perennial front-runner Dee Dee Jonrowe of Willow, at 5:20 a.m.
Gebhardt, who finished sixth in last year's race, said his strategy to rest his team during the heat of the day and run them at night had given him the early lead.
``They're going good. I'm happy. They race pretty hard,'' Gebhardt said Monday, as he prepared freeze-dried food for his 16 dogs as they napped on fluffy beds of straw.
Temperatures in the 30s forced mushers to slow their pace to keep from overheating their teams.
``In the afternoon, if the sun's out, it's going to be really bad,'' Gebhardt said of the unseasonal heat. ``You've got to be careful.''
The next checkpoint is at Nikolai, the first of many Native villages along the Iditarod trail. It's an 80-mile run from Rohn across an area called the Farewell Burn - dreaded by mushers because of tree stumps left by Alaska's largest wildfire in 1977. The stumps can shatter mushers' sleds.
A record 81 teams took to the trail Sunday from Wasilla to officially begin the 1,150-mile race to the Gold Rush city of Nome.
The race was begun to commemorate the lifesaving relay of diphtheria serum to Nome by mushers in 1925. Swingley holds the race record of 9 days, 2 hours and 42 minutes set in 1995.
The teams, which include 29 rookies, are competing for a share of a $525,000 purse, the largest ever. The winner gets $60,000 and a new pickup truck. Prize money will be paid to the first 30 finishers.
Two mushers already have scratched from the race.
Ted English from Wasilla flipped his sled and landed hard on his back on glare ice Saturday afternoon just outside Anchorage.
The 61-year-old part-time carpenter struck his head on his sled and hurt his right leg and hip. English decided Sunday that his injuries were serious enough to force him to become the first musher to drop out.
On Monday, Harry Caldwell of Knik pulled out of the race at Skwentna, saying dogs in his team were in heat and unable to continue.