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TAKOTNA -- Defending champion Doug Swingley moved to the head of the pack in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race this morning, leaving this western Interior village after a nearly six-hour rest.
Swingley hit the trail at 8:08 a.m. under a clear blue skies as the temperature hovered near zero.
He left behind Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof who had been leading the race since Monday. Gebhardt had arrived in Takotna about 1 1/2 hours before Swingley.
Swingley was joined on the trail from Takotna to to the gold-mining ghost town of Ophir by three-time champion Martin Buser of Big Lake and DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow. Buser left the Takotna checkpoint at 8:40 a.m. after a pause of just three minutes and Jonrowe left Takotna at 9:13 a.m. after stopping for just 11 minutes.
With just 51 residents, Takotna is one of the smallest villages on the trail. But it puts out one of the biggest welcomes for the mushers. For that reason, many mushers like to take their mandatory 24-hour layover here.
Volunteers were cooking up everything from burgers, pies and cakes to steak and crab legs at the community hall. Mushers were taking the opportunity to catch up on some much-needed rest after tending to their dogs. They've been racing since Sunday and fatigue was starting to set in.
During the 24-hour layover, mushers' times are adjusted to make up for their differing start times, so it can be difficult to tell exactly who is ahead until they complete their layovers.
Six other mushers had joined Gebhardt in Takotna by mid-morning. Ramy Brooks of Healy arrived at 4:07 a.m., Bill Cotter of Nenana arrived at 6:50, Jerry Riley of Nenana arrived at 8:02 a.m., Zack Steer of Anchorage arrived at 8:20 a.m., Rick Swenson of Two Rivers arrived at 8:35 and Jon Little of Kasilof arrived in Takotna at 9:12 a.m.
Teams in the back of the pack were having trouble with a trail left rough and bumpy by snowmachines and other mushers. Several mushers had broken their sleds, running into trees and stumps.
Temperatures have been rising into the 30s during the day and many mushers have been running their teams during the cool nights, so as not to overheat the dogs.
Seventy-nine mushers remained in the 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome after 81 took part in the ceremonial start Saturday. One musher, Ted English, was injured during the ceremonial start and dropped out of the race before Sunday's official start in Wasilla. The only other musher to scratch was Harry Caldwell, who said he had too many dogs in his team go into heat.