TAKOTNA - The top four teams in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race have reached the halfway point in their 1,100-mile trip to Nome, led by defending champion Doug Swingley.
Swingley, of Lincoln, Mont., reached the Gold Rush ghost town of Cripple just before 11 p.m. Wednesday night and apparently settled in for his mandatory 24-hour layover.
Swingley captured the half-way prize of $3,000 in gold nuggets and a trophy. In a change from past years, the first five mushers to reach the halfway point are also taking home gold.
Three-time champion Martin Buser of Big Lake arrived in Cripple at 2:35 a.m. Thursday to win $2,000 in gold nuggets, five-time Champion Rick Swenson of Two Rivers reached the checkpoint at 2:53 a.m. to win $2,000, and 1983 champion Rick Mackey of Nenana won $2,000, reaching Cripple at 5:30 a.m. The $1,000 prize for being the fifth musher into Cripple had yet to be claimed Thursday morning.
Mackey has dropped only one dog during the race, leaving him with 15.
``I think I'm in a real good position. So far everything has worked out,'' Mackey said as he tossed fish chunks to his dogs at the Ophir checkpoint.
Mackey said he's a bit slower than Swingley, Buser and Swenson but they shouldn't count him out.
``When I get on the coast I can speed up. I do go like heck when I leave White Mountain,'' Mackey said, referring to the next to last checkpoint in the 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome. ``Even Doug says `I have to lose you by then.'''
Swingley will be allowed to leave Cripple at about midnight, after completing his layover. While he's resting, mushers that have already completed their layover will be trying to gain ground.
Ramey Smyth of Big Lake was in 5th place, resting at the Ophir checkpoint.
Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof, who led during the first two days of racing, finished his layover and passed through the Ophir checkpoint for the 60-mile run to Cripple at 5:25 a.m.
Not far behind Gebhardt was three-time champion Jeff King of Denali Park. King has also completed his layover. He passed through Ophir at 6:08 a.m.
Rounding out the top 10 racers were, DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow, Tony Willis of Anchorage and Charlie Boulding of Manley, who was the last musher to leave the starting line Sunday in Wasilla where mushers leave in two-minute staggers so the trail isn't congested. All three were in Ophir. Boulding had already completed his mandatory layover.
At 18, Willis is the youngest musher on the trail. His father and brother have both run the Iditarod.
Eighty-one mushers began the race, which had its ceremonial start in Anchorage on March 4. Two mushers have scratched, leaving 79 teams in the race.