ANCHORAGE - Rick Swenson, the only five-time winner of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, dropped out of the running Thursday - the first time he's scratched from the 1,100-mile trek to Nome in 29 years on the trail.
The 54-year-old musher from Two Rivers officially withdrew after returning to the checkpoint at McGrath, 722 miles from the finish line. Swenson told race managers he was concerned about the well-being of his dog team.
"He said they weren't running as well as he wanted them to," race marshal Mark Nordman said.
Swenson took his mandatory 24-hour rest at McGrath, then traveled 18 miles to the Takotna checkpoint, arriving shortly before 7 a.m. Thursday, race officials said. He dropped off one of his dogs, then headed for Ophir - 25 miles away - with 12 dogs. Mushers start the race with 16 dogs and must end it with at least five.
On the trail, Swenson decided to turn back to McGrath, a busy hub where he could transport his dogs home quicker, St. George said.
"He's the kind of guy who hates to quit, so his decision was based on what's in the best interest of his team," he said.
Another top musher withdrew from competition late Wednesday. Zack Steer of Sheep Mountain was in eighth place when he scratched at the Ophir checkpoint, about 475 miles into the race to Nome.
Steer, whose pregnant wife is due later this month, cited personal reasons for dropping out.
As of noon Thursday, six mushers had scratched, leaving 73 in the running. Judy Merritt of Moose Pass withdrew Wednesday in Rainy Pass, later telling officials she sustained a concussion after crashing her sled on the trail.
Norwegian Robert Sorlie was the first musher to arrive early Thursday at the checkpoint in the ghost town of Iditarod - considered the halfway point.
For getting there first, the 47-year-old firefighter received $4,000 in gold nuggets. Sorlie, of Hurdal, also was the first musher to reach Iditarod - now a gold-mining ghost town but once a bustling community of more than 10,000 - when he won the race in 2003 in 9 days, 15 hours and 47 minutes.
But his hold on the lead was tenuous because other top mushers have already satisfied the 24-hour rest period. That could shake up the standings over the next day.
Mushers are also required to take two eight-hour layovers.
Sorlie and other race leaders - including four-winner Martin Buser of Big Lake, defending champion Mitch Seavey of Seward and three-time Jeff King of Denali Park - were expected to take their 24-hour rests at the Iditarod checkpoint, about 590 miles from Nome.
Sorlie would not be able to leave Iditarod until early Friday morning, freeing up the trail for mushers who have gotten their 24s out of the way.
They include Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers, a former winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, 2005 Quest winner Lance Mackey of Kasilof and four-time Iditarod winner Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Mont.
Lagging near the end was 20-year-old Rachael Scdoris of Bend, Ore., who is trying to be the first legally blind musher to complete the race.
Scdoris was closely following Paul Ellering of Grey Eagle, Minn. Ellering is a former professional wrestler and former Iditarod competitor who is serving as Scdoris' "visual interpreter."
The total purse of the 33rd running of the Iditarod is $750,107. The winner receives $72,066.67.