Seavey, Backen battle at front of Iditarod pack

Leaders neck-and-neck entering race's final run to Nome

Posted: Tuesday, March 16, 2004

KOYUK - Norway's Kjetil Backen tried to snatch the lead Monday from Mitch Seavey in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race with both racers leaving the Koyuk checkpoint seconds apart.

But Seavey held off Backen over the 48 miles to Elim, the next checkpoint. Seavey arrived at Elim at 8:29 p.m. Monday and left 10 minutes later. Backen arrived at Elim at 9:52 p.m. and was not reported out of the checkpoint as of 10:40 p.m. Monday.

While it appeared that Backen got a few seconds' jump on Seavey out of Koyuk, race officials had both teams leaving at 2:18 p.m. Backen, who was third coming into Koyuk, spent only three hours in the checkpoint resting his team. Seavey rested his team for five hours.

Three-time Iditarod winner Jeff King, who was second into Koyuk at 11:07 a.m., left in third at 3:52 p.m. Monday. Charlie Boulding of Manley, a favorite with people in Koyuk, left the village at 4:02 p.m., and Ed Iten of Kotzebue left at 7:23 p.m. Also out of Koyuk as of 10:40 p.m. Monday were Ramey Smyth of Big Lake (8:02 p.m.), five-time winner Rick Swenson of Two Rivers (9:20 p.m.), John Baker of Kotzebue (9:25 p.m.) and Ramy Brooks of Healy (9:35 p.m.).

For updated standings, look on the Web at

A couple of hours before leaving, King, looking relaxed, ate lasagna and wild blueberries and ice cream from vacuum-sealed food packs, while assessing his chances of getting first to Nome in one of the closest Iditarods in years.

In King's way was Seavey, who has never won the 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome.

Seavey, of Seward, looked about as stressed as King did relaxed at this checkpoint, just 123 miles from the finish line.

"He is very impressive," King said of Seavey. "He is going faster. ... If you've got speed and the lead, it will be tough to beat."

Seavey is running in his 11th Iditarod. His best finish was fourth in 1998. He arrived first into Koyuk at 9:17 a.m.

"I'm just so impressed with my dog team," Seavey told KNOM radio Sunday in Unalakleet. "I can hardly believe it. The things that I've asked them to do here, they just keep performing and performing."

King, of Denali Park, followed Seavey into Kaltag about 90 minutes later.

From Shaktoolik, the 48 miles of trail bears north, covering several miles of land before touching on Norton Bay. The terrain here is mostly gentle swells. Closer to Koyuk, the ice is often rough.

From Koyuk, teams head along the coast and sea ice to Elim 48 miles away and just 95 miles from Nome.

Backen had been leading until one of his dogs collapsed and died Sunday near the Unalakleet checkpoint. He arrived in Koyuk about a half-hour after King.

King said Backen may not be able to bounce back.

"I think his heart is broke," King said.

Backen is running nearly the same team as the one that fellow Norwegian Robert Sorlie did to win the 2003 Iditarod. The dog that died, called "Takk," which means thank you in Norwegian, helped lead Sorlie across the finish line last year.

"I race, but I'm not quite same. My feelings go up and down," Backen said while repacking his sled. "We have to keep living. We have to go on. ... It's hard."

Preliminary findings of a necropsy indicate the 7-year-old male died of blood loss associated with gastric ulcers, according to race officials.

About a dozen adults and children crowded around Boulding's sled after he arrived in Koyuk at 11:59 a.m. Boulding often visits with people in this village of about 300 when he's doing his training runs during the year.

"Hey Charlie, you're doing very good," said Lola Hannoy while giving him a big hug.

A record 87 mushers began the race from Anchorage to Nome on March 6. Eight mushers have scratched, including four-time Iditarod winner Doug Swingley after the cold affected his eyes and he needed immediate medical attention.

This year's purse is more than $700,000 with a first-place prize of $69,000 and a new Dodge truck.

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