UNALAKLEET - Paul Gebhardt took the lead of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Sunday night.
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Gebhardt was the first to leave Unalakleet at 9 p.m. Sunday.
Lance Mackey sits in second, 19 minutes behind Gebhardt, while Martin Buser and Jeff King have also departed Unalakleet.
The top four mushers are seperated by 45 minutes.
Defending champion King reached Unalakleet first on Sunday as he entered the final leg of the longest sled dog race in the world.
More than 100 people, many of them bundled in bulky parkas with large fur ruffs, stood out in below-zero weather with icy wind whipping the coastal village of Unalakleet to await the first musher into the checkpoint 261 miles from the finish line in Nome.
King, a four-time winner, arrived at 3:35 p.m., followed less than an hour later by Mackey of Fairbanks, who is trying to prove that a musher can win the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and the 1,100-mile Iditarod in the same year. That's the equivalent of racing a team from New York City to Miami.
Four-time winner Buser was third into Unalakleet just 2 minutes later. He was followed by Gebhardt of Kasilof, the third-place finisher last year.
"Why wouldn't we want to push the pace in the biggest dog race in the world?" said King, when asked about his dogs going 150 miles on the Yukon River into a brutally cold headwind with just 5 hours rest.
King said the runs are long and the rest is minimal but his dogs have been trained to handle a fast-paced Iditarod.
"I am not asking more than what I trained," King said. "I think they're tough."
An upbeat Lance Mackey, who passed Buser and Gebhardt on his way to Unalakleet, knelt down and hugged his lead dog after arriving in the checkpoint.
"They are starting to get fired up," Mackey said. "They know if they perform well the next race they won't have to worry about getting there. They'll be driving in a new truck. ... I can almost smell that new truck smell."
The winner will get about $69,000 in prize money and a new quad-cab pickup truck worth more than $40,000. Mackey drives a 14-year-old truck.
Mackey - who is trying to join his father, Dick, and brother, Rick, in becoming an Iditarod champion - said he didn't expect to even see Buser, never mind pass him.
"I knew when we got on the hard, fast trail we would pick up some time," he said.
But Mackey said there's still a lot of racing to do before the finish line and he needs to be patient. Even so, as tired as he was, Mackey found it hard to contain his excitement.
"Never before have I been so close," he said.
If Mackey seemed up, Buser seemed down.
When asked how his dog team is doing, Buser said, "Not very good at all, but I'm here. I'm glad to be here."
Buser, who was leading the race, ticked off the troubles he's had so far. Problems ranged from having to carry tired dogs in his sled bag to losing his team to busting up his knee to one of his lead dogs getting badly injured in a dog fight.
Then, he said, to top it all off he got passed by Mackey on the way to Unalakleet.
"I haven't put a good run together," Buser said.