UNALAKLEET - The Iditarod's only five-time champion can't figure out how race leader Doug Swingley can run his dogs with so little rest.
"I don't have a clue," Rick Swenson of Two Rivers said during a break in Unalakleet on Monday, 261 miles from the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. "The dogs aren't like a snowmachine - mine aren't anyway - where I can just shut them down and start them up and they're as lively as when you put them away. You have to charge the battery back up."
Time was running out for other mushers to challenge Swingley in the 1,100-mile race.
Swingley left the Elim checkpoint at 6:35 a.m. today, 123 miles from Nome. The Montana musher has dominated the race the last two years and appeared headed for his fourth win and third consecutive victory.
He finished last year's race in a record-setting nine days and 58 minutes, a record that's safe for this year. Swingley was expected to cross the finish line in Nome late today or early Wednesday, after about nine and a half days.
Musher Linwood Fiedler of Willow was holding onto second place. The musher, who leads dogsled tours on Juneau's Norris Glacier during the summer, left Koyuk at 1:48 a.m. today. Three-time winner Jeff King left Koyuk at 6:09 a.m. in third place. Swenson, the race's only five-time winner, reached Koyuk at 6:35 a.m. and was in fourth place.
Swenson, competing in his 25th Iditarod, said he had to change leaders eight times from Kaltag to Unalakleet, a 90-mile stretch of trail between the Yukon River and Bering Sea coast.
Earlier in the race, he dropped three of his best leaders. One pulled too hard and injured its back, another was injured jumping over a bale of hay in a checkpoint, and the third "just got wore out," Swenson said.
"I'm not racing anybody," said Swenson, who last won in 1991. "With the leaders I've got, I'm not going to do any racing."
Jerry Riley of Nenana, the 1976 Iditarod winner, was about an hour behind Swenson. He was hoping his unusual dog team would be tough enough this year to tackle the next stretch of trail along the Bering Sea coast. Riley's dogs are part Alaska husky, part Irish setter and part Belgian sheepdog.
Riley scratched last year about this point in the race when his dogs tired.
"I'm resting them as much as I possibly can," Riley said as he repaired a broken runner on his sled before heading to Shaktoolik, 42 miles away.
Riley said he doubled the number of dogs in his team this year with a significant amount of setter in them because they're durable.
It was his setter dogs that wanted to continue to Nome last year. The sheepdog component gives the dogs speed, he said.
Riley, who is 64, also got a little banged up on the trail. He said he dislocated his shoulder when he flipped his sled on a sharp turn near the Iditarod checkpoint. He rolled on the ground to put the shoulder back in place, he said.
John Baker of Kotzebue, whose best finish was fifth in 1998, said he's benefiting late in the race by not pushing his dogs too hard at the beginning. Now they're moving at a steady clip, said Baker, who was in sixth place today.