KOYUK - Defending champion Doug Swingley was the first Iditarod musher into this coastal village today after crossing the treacherous sea ice of Norton Sound. He arrived at 1:37 a.m. with a dozen dogs.
The two-time winner of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from Lincoln, Mont., appears to be on his way to another record-breaking run. Swingley was about five hours ahead of the other front-runners.
Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof left Shaktoolik at 1:05 a.m. for the 48-mile crossing to Koyuk. Charlie Boulding of Manley was running third, departing Shaktoolik at 1:50 a.m. Then came three-time winner Jeff King of Denali Park, at 4:05. Ramy Brooks of Healy was running fifth, checking out of Shaktoolik at 4:23 a.m.
If Swingley keeps up the pace, he could cross the finish line at Nome sometime Tuesday afternoon to complete the race in about nine days. Nome is 171 miles from Koyuk.
Swingley set the course record for the southern route in 1995 with a time of nine days, two hours and 42 minutes.
The other front-runners have all but conceded the race to Swingley.
King said the only thing that will prevent Swingley from winning is an out-of-this-world occurrence.
``Look at the stats,'' King said Sunday. ``I need a meteor to fall out of the sky and hit him in the head.''
King said he pushed his team as fast as he could up the icy, 150-mile stretch of the Yukon River to reach Unalakleet and was happy with the run. That's until he learned Swingley was gaining.
``I had a great run. I felt good until I looked at the stats,'' he said. ``Doug really poured it on, didn't he? It's amazing.''
Swingley's team was moving at about 10 mph approaching Unalakleet,
so fast he hoped to put the brakes on the dogs.
``I've been trying to get them to go slower,'' Swingley said.
Gebhardt said he got a chance to see Swingley's team up close on the Kaltag River. ``He passed me on the river,'' Gebhardt said. ``He was flying.''
Competing in his fourth Iditarod after finishing sixth last year, Gebhardt said Swingley can't be overtaken at this point, even if he slows his team.
``He has to have a problem, a big problem, like his sled falling into the ocean,'' Gebhardt said.
The Iditarod's only five-time champion, Rick Swenson from Two Rivers, said it's Swingley's race unless something extraordinary happens.
``Nobody is going to catch him with dog power,'' Swenson said.
Brooks said his team was running as well as he could hope but that Swingley was too far ahead to catch. He was looking forward to the race being over.
``My goal is to get there and get it all done with,'' said Brooks, who last year won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest, a race many mushers consider tougher than the Iditarod.
``Unless some major catastrophe happens . . . it's his race,'' Brooks said.
Swingley was comfortable enough with his team's performance to change leaders at Unalakleet, putting an inexperienced 2year-old, Cloud, next to her mother, Stormy. He attached a line between mother and daughter to help Cloud get the hang of being a leader.
``I'm not worried about anything,'' Swingley said Sunday when asked how his race was going.