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NIKOLAI - Norwegian Kjetil Backen took the lead Tuesday in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, but said that was not his intention.
Good thing, too. He held it for less than three hours before Mitch Seavey of Seward stole it away, although later on Tuesday Backen had retaken the lead leaving McGrath, 48 miles up the trail.
Backen, racing in his second Iditarod with some of fellow Norwegian 2003 Iditarod winner Robert Sorlie's dogs, arrived first at 7:01 a.m. at the Nikolai checkpoint about one-third of the way into the 1,112-mile race from Anchorage to Nome.
"I hadn't planned to be in lead," said Backen, as he prepared hay beds for his team and three veterinarians checked over the dogs. "I want to be here, now," he said, explaining that he was keeping to his pre-race schedule regardless of what the competition was up to.
Several of the race's front-runners were traveling incognito early Tuesday, and were reportedly camped out on the trail about 10 miles outside the Nikolai checkpoint. The checkpoint is 352 miles from the race start in Anchorage.
Charlie Boulding of Manley arrived at Nikolai about 40 minutes later. He said even though he's officially in the No. 2 position, it doesn't mean much because three-time winner Jeff King of Denali Park and four-time winner Martin Buser of Big Lake were camped out an old fish camp and would soon retake front-runner status.
"I am not really in the No. 2 position," Boulding said as he fed his dogs a gruel of kibble and meat. "They'll come blowing through here in a little bit."
Boulding turned out to be right. Seavey, who had his best finish in 1998 when he was fourth, took the lead at 9:47 a.m. when he passed quickly through the Nikolai checkpoint. King was next, spending three minutes at the checkpoint, followed by Buser, who spent just two minutes in Nikolai. Ramy Brooks of Healy, runner-up the last two years, was fourth, followed by Aaron Burmeister of Nenana.
Four-time winner Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Mont., 13th into Nikolai, decided to stop and rest his team, and perhaps more importantly his eyes because he was being troubled by blurred vision.
"I froze my corneas coming into Rohn. I can't see. They're all blurred up," Swingley said. He hoped a few hours rest would help.
Later on Tuesday, King led Buser into McGrath shortly after 3 p.m. King arrived at 3:13 p.m. to win the PenAir "Spirit of Alaska Award" and Buser followed at 3:29 p.m., but both mushers still were resting in the checkpoint Tuesday night. Boulding arrived in McGrath at 6:16 p.m., with Backen arriving at 7:16 p.m., John Baker of Kotzebue and Bill Cotter of Nenana both arrived at 7:58 p.m. and Seavey pulled into McGrath at 8:43 p.m.
As of 9 p.m. on Tuesday night, only Backen and Baker had left McGrath. Backen left at 7:19 p.m. and Baker took off at 8:02 p.m. for the 18-mile run to Takotna, which is followed by a 25-mile run to Ophir.
When Jim Lanier of Chugiak arrived in Nikolai he had a broken sled and a snapped off sled runner. He'd tried a temporary fix with clamps and a hockey stick.
While Lanier had another sled waiting for him, a problem with his front tooth couldn't be so easily fixed. Lanier grinned to display a jagged front tooth, broken when he was thrown from his sled on a rough stretch of trail and his front teeth collided with the ice.
Iditarod mushing really is a rough sport, he said. Lanier's best finish was in 2003 when he was 24th.
While the 2004 Iditarod was proving tough on some of the mushers, the dog teams appeared to be faring better. Most of the mushers said their dogs were moving well in the cold temperatures.
Boulding said his dogs really perked up between Rainy Pass, where temperatures were about 20 degrees and Nikolai where it was 20 below. The dogs did particularly well during the 80-mile stretch from Rohn to Nikolai, Boulding said.
"They were a little sluggish yesterday. But last night they were dynamite. They've adjusted to the race schedule," he said.
Randy Chappel of Arlington, Texas, arrived carrying a dog on top of his sled. He said the dog "like fell over" about 100 feet from the checkpoint. Veterinarian Vern Starks said they weren't sure what the problem was but the dog was being given intravenous glucose and was perking up. Chappel said the 5-year-old dog named Harley had been bothered by a sore shoulder before reaching Nikolai.
A record 87 mushers, including five former champions, are competing in the 2004 Iditarod. This year's purse is more than $700,000 with a first-place prize of $69,000 and a new Dodge truck.
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. Buser holds the record of 8 days, 22 hours and 46 minutes achieved in 2002.
As of Tuesday night, two mushers had scratched from the race, both at the Rainy Pass checkpoint. Rookie Jesse Beebe of Wasilla and veteran musher Burt Bomhoff of Chugiak, a former Iditarod Trail Committee executive director, are the only two to quit the race so far.