UNALAKLEET - Montana musher Doug Swingley added to his strong lead in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race today and, barring disaster, appeared poised for his fourth victory.
Swingley left the Shaktoolik checkpoint at 7:58 a.m. for the 58-mile run across ice-covered Norton Bay to Koyuk. From Koyuk, it was 171 miles to the finish chute on Front Street in Nome.
If Swingley wins, it would be his third consecutive victory. Only Susan Butcher, another four-time champion, has won three consecutive Iditarods. Butcher won the 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome from 1986 to 1988.
"This race is his. The rest of it is just a formality," said Joe Runyan, the 1989 race champion who was in Unalakleet to follow the race.
During his stop in the coastal village of Unalakleet, Swingley and his team were surrounded by a crowd of residents who watched as he tended to his dogs.
"They're pretty resilient and they recover quickly," Swinley said of his team. After feeding and bedding down his team, Swingley accepted a trophy and $2,500 in gold nuggets from National Bank of Alaska for being the first musher to reach the coast.
Swingley said he's running the same schedule that worked so well for him last year and in 1999 when he was first to Nome.
A rougher trail this year, marked by glare ice and too little snow, will likely prevent Swingley from breaking his record-setting pace of nine days and 58 minutes in the 2000 race. He was expected to reach Nome late Tuesday night or early Wednesday.
Nearly seven hours behind Swingley, the race for second place was shaping up to be a little more interesting.
Linwood Fiedler of Willow, who summers in Juneau while running dogsled tours on the Mendenhall Glacier, passed three-time champion Jeff King of Denali Park.
Fiedler left Unalakleet at 3:35 a.m. King followed at 5:25 a.m. Fiedler has pursued an unusual strategy in this race, pushing ahead farthest along the trail before taking his mandatory 24-hour break.
Fiedler has run the race 12 times before. He had his best races in 1990 and 1998, finishing in eighth place both times. Last year he finished in 19th place.
Five-time champion Rick Swenson of Two Rivers was in fourth place this morning. He reached the Unalakleet checkpoint at 5:25 a.m., just as King was leaving. Jerry Riley of Nenana followed Swenson into Unalakleet an hour later.
Sixty-eight mushers started the race March 3. By today, 58 remained on the trail. Nine had scratched and one was withdrawn for having a noncompetitive team.