RAINY PASS, Alaska - More than 200 hundred miles into the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Bill Cotter gave his team a long rest Monday while he mulled over the nasty bump on his forehead.
Cotter said he got the injury when he encountered a log on the trail coming into the Rainy Pass checkpoint, 224 miles from Anchorage, but still remembered the No. 1 lesson of mushing: Hang on to your team.
"I tipped over, landed in the snow and hit a tree. I held on," said Cotter, of Nenana, who is racing in his 18th Iditarod after not competing last year and coming in a disappointing 27th in 2002.
As of 10 p.m. Monday, Cotter was leading the pack in the 2004 race. He left the Rohn Roadhouse checkpoint at 6:50 p.m. bound for Nikolai, followed three minutes later by Mitch Seavey of Seward.
Other mushers reported out of Rohn as of 10 p.m., in order, were Ed Iten (left 7:02 p.m.), former champ Jeff King (7:18 p.m.), fan favorite Dee Dee Jonrowe (7:32 p.m.) Tim Osmar (8:26 p.m.), Ramey Smyth (8:27 p.m.), Jim Lanier (8:33 p.m.), rookie Hugh Neff (8:39 p.m.), Randy Chappel (8:45 p.m.), Aaron Burmeister (8:52 p.m.), Anna Bondarenko (9:01 p.m.) and former champ Martin Buser (9:08 p.m.). Former champs Rick Swenson and Doug Swingley were among the mushers remaining at the remote cabin checkpoint, located about 196 miles from the race restart at Willow.
For updated standings, look on the Web at www.iditarod.com.
A record 87 mushers, including five former champions, are competing in the 1,100 mile race from Anchorage to Nome, the world's longest sled dog race. This year's purse is more than $700,000, with a first-place prize of $69,000 and a new Dodge truck.
Mushers faced a steep climb toward Rainy Pass in the Alaska Range, at 3,160 feet the highest point of the race.
Between Rainy Pass and the Rohn Roadhouse checkpoint, mushers had to contend with the often-treacherous Dalzell Gorge. From Rohn to Nikolai, the trail crosses the Farewell Burn - the scar of a large 1978 forest fire - and racers must cross some of the worst trail conditions of the race.
It normally takes mushers nine or 10 days to reach Nome, but race officials are expecting a fast-paced race this year because of good trail conditions. Four-time champion Martin Buser of Big Lake holds the record of 8 days, 22 hours and 46 minutes achieved in 2002. He is the only racer to finish in less than nine days.
The pace of the 2004 race surprised even Swenson, of Two Rivers, the race's only five-time winner.
"I'm surprised, impressed, one or both," said Swenson, who had a mishap of his own to contend with. He said one of his sled runners broke about 15 miles from the Rainy Pass checkpoint and he had to repair it.
"It just snapped off," Swenson said.
Two Rivers musher Ken Anderson said the front-runners, in his opinion, were going too fast and he would hold his team back for a while. Anderson is competing in his fourth Iditarod. He came in fifth last year.
"I've just been taking it real easy and resting the dogs when they need it," Anderson said, as he prepared a meal of kibble and horse meat for his dogs. "The normal guys are fast at the start like they usually are. It's just a matter if they can keep their speed."
Ray Redington Jr. of Two Rivers said he began the restart in Willow in 50th position and for the first 24 hours of racing had been trying to figure out how to pass teams. He was 23rd into Rainy Pass.
"It is hard to do," said Redington. "Everyone has nice fast dogs."
With skies sunny and temperatures at a warmish 20 degrees, about 20 teams were resting at the Rainy Pass checkpoint at midday Monday rather than risking overheating their teams.
"It's so hot now. I really didn't want to run in the heat of the day," said Anderson.
Ed Iten of Kotzebue, who finished ninth in 2003, took advantage of the nice weather to get a cat nap curled up on the top of his sled, while his dogs napped on beds of hay.
When asked if he can sleep well on his sled, Iten answered "no" and pulled his parka over his head.