ANCHORAGE - Norwegian Robert Sorlie held fast to his lead Wednesday in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, followed by the two mushers who trailed him in his 2003 victory: Ramy Brooks of Healy and Jeff King of Denali Park.
Sorlie, a 47-year-old firefighter from Hurdal, was first out of the Ophir checkpoint, leaving at 9:25 a.m. for the 90-mile run to the next checkpoint at the long-abandoned mining town of Iditarod.
From there, it's a 590-mile trek to the Nome finish line on Alaska's western coast.
Sorlie also commanded an early lead in the 2003 race, only his second run in the 1,100-mile Iditarod. As it was that year, Sorlie's run is hampered in the current race by insomnia, he said this week.
Next out of Ophir Wednesday was Brooks, who followed Sorlie at 10:31 a.m., and King, a three-time Iditarod winner who departed the checkpoint at 11:09 a.m.
Parts of the race so far has been marked by unseasonably warm weather - high temperatures above freezing - filling the trail with sloshy pools of water in some areas.
Judy Merritt, a three-time Iditarod veteran from Moose Pass, withdrew from the race Wednesday morning after numerous crashes along an especially dismal stretch between the checkpoints of Finger Lake and Rainy Pass. Merritt, 44, is the fourth musher to scratch so far.
Merritt spent Tuesday night in Rainy Pass, hoping the 13 dogs remaining on her team would rest up enough to continue the 900 miles left in the race. But she officially dropped out just before 8 a.m. Wednesday, telling race officials her dogs were still too tired.
Merritt also scratched in two previous race attempts.
Other mushers who dropped out of the running this week are G.B. Jones of Wasilla, Jacques Philip of Nenana and Sonny Lindner of Two Rivers.
Near the end of the pack was Rachael Scdoris, a legally blind musher from Bend, Ore., who is trying to make history by completing the race.
Scdoris, 20, was in 72nd place as of Wednesday evening, close behind Paul Ellering of Grey Eagle, Minn. Ellering, 51, is a former professional wrestler and 2000 Iditarod competitor who is serving as Scdoris' "visual interpreter" on the trail.
The total purse of the 33rd running of the Iditarod is $750,107. The winner receives $72,066.67.