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ANCHORAGE - Mushers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race take care of their dogs first when they stop to rest, massaging sore paws and serving up stews of hearty grub for their teams.
Then it's their turn - and there's no skimping on the people chow found along the lonely stretches of the 1,100-mile race or at the checkpoints. Chicken tetrazzini and Thai noodles. Caribou stroganoff, linguini, turkey dinners with stuffing and moose breakfast burritos. Calorie-laden food for calorie-torching work.
Some contenders are more health-conscious with the precooked meals that are flown to the checkpoints, while others go the McDonald's route, literally. Then there are the family favorites, like the homemade lasagna carried each year by four-time winner Jeff King, who was among the front-runners clustered Thursday in Cripple, the halfway point in the trek to Nome on Alaska's western coast.
"My wife won me over before we were married with her lasagna," the Denali Park musher said. "I've been eating lasagna ever since."
Dallas Seavey's meals are provided by sponsor Alaska Five Star Catering and include moose chimichangas, caribou stroganoff and chicken alfredo - all full of protein and good carbohydrates.
"It's very important what we're consuming," said Seavey, the 22-year-old son of 2004 winner Mitch Seavey of Seward. The young musher was the first to reach Cripple early Thursday morning. For that feat, he won $3,000 in placer gold nuggets.
He was expected to take his mandatory 24-hour layover there with several other leaders including John Baker of Kotzebue and four-time champion Martin Buser of Big Lake. King and other strong contenders already have taken their 24-hour mandatory breaks and they were back on the trail. King was leading the surge and arrived in Cripple shortly after noon. Satellite tracking showed that Hugh Neff of Tok, the elder Seavey, defending champion Lance Mackey and Canada's Sebastian Schnuelle arrived after King.
Also on Thursday, Iditarod veteran Linwood Fiedler of Willow became the seventh musher to scratch, leaving a field of 64. Race marshal Mark Nordman said Fiedler did not feel comfortable continuing with just 11 dogs, after dropping five since the start of the race. Another musher, rookie Justin Savidis of Willow, reported one of his dogs, "Whitey," went missing Wednesday between the Nikolai and McGrath checkpoints. Iditarod officials said the dog has been spotted a number of times since. Race rules prohibit mushers from continuing without the same team that left the previous checkpoint.
Mackey, who is seeking his fourth consecutive win, is carrying lots of dinner leftovers, spaghetti, hamburger patties with mashed potatoes and gravy. He also enjoys meals provided to mushers at checkpoints and agrees with others that the famed feast in the village of Takotna is something to look forward to.
As with other mushers, Mackey also carries snacks, in his case beef jerky, dried salmon strips and hard candies, "stuff like that to kind of kill time," he said.
"It keeps you awake a little bit," he said. "So I always seem to have something that I'm snacking on."
Iditarod veteran Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof is packing McDonald's quarter-pounders with cheese. He's also bringing breakfast burritos his wife makes with bacon, eggs, hash browns and salsa, as well as his own concoction: french bread sandwiches with grape jelly spread on one half, Miracle Whip on the other, then heaped with roast pork and ketchup.
As with other mushers, many of Gebhardt's meals are vacuum-packed and ready for heating in the water that will be added to his team's own food.
Another favorite for Gebhardt are Hostess Twinkies.
"It's fascinating to school kids because Twinkies don't freeze - ever," he said. "At 65 below a Twinkie is still soft."
Canada's Hans Gatt, fresh off his fourth win in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, said his energy and focus are much higher since he gave up the junk food he used to carry. Now his choices are heavy on vegetable bases. He's also taking meals like tuna casserole and such snacks as nuts, smoked salmon and dark chocolate.
"A lot of the mushers underestimate the influence of food on the trail," he said.