UNALAKLEET, Alaska - In another kind of dog race, Robert Sorlie would be the mechanical rabbit, luring contenders around a track.
In the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the 47-year-old Norwegian remains the elusive quarry, for days beyond the reach of rivals bent on stopping him from a second victory in only his third try.
It was no different Tuesday as the 1,100-mile race got ever closer to the finish line in Nome at the edge of the frozen Bering Sea and the firefighter from Hurdal continued to own the lead.
Sorlie, who held the same command when he won the 2003 race, was the first musher to reach the village of White Mountain, 77 miles from Nome. Sorlie arrived a minute before 1 p.m., and left at 8:59 p.m. for the final homestretch after fulfilling the mandatory 8-hour layover all mushers must take at White Mountain, an Eskimo village of 200.
The church bell rang to announce the first musher in and the whole village came out, said Kathy Chapotone, wife of four-time Iditarod winner Martin Buser of Big Lake, who was running in 9th place Tuesday afternoon. Chapotone said snow was blowing and temperatures were above freezing when Sorlie reached White Mountain with eight dogs.
"He was tired, but his dogs looked strong," she said. "They had to go through 2-foot snowdrifts. It was a lot of work."
From the village, there's just one more checkpoint, Safety, then it's 22 miles to Nome.
Ed Iten of Kotzebue and defending champion Mitch Seavey of Seward followed Sorlie into White Mountain, arriving at 2:50 and 2:56 p.m., respectively. Others at the checkpoint as of 9:30 p.m. Tuesday were Ramy Brooks of Healy, John Baker of Kotzebue, Norwegian rookie Bjornar Andersen - Sorlie's nephew - and Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof.
For updates on the race, look on the Web at www.iditarod.com.
Earlier Tuesday, Sorlie was the first musher to leave the Elim checkpoint 123 miles from Nome, departing at 4:17 a.m. after resting his dogs for three hours. He was followed about three hours later by a pack of front-runners on a trail marked by wet, soft snow and temperatures hovering just above freezing.
From Elim, the trail heads to Golovin 28 miles away, following the ice along the coast then inland across the Kwitalik Mountains, a range of hills with moderate grades. Next stop after that is White Mountain, then the trail briefly goes inland before skimming along the coast, an area subject to blinding winds.
Second out of Elim was Baker, who left almost three hours after Sorlie. He was closely followed by Seavey, Brooks - runner-up to Sorlie in 2003 - and Iten.
Next out were Andersen and Gebhardt.
The closest contenders have up to three more dogs than Sorlie, who was down to eight after dropping off a dog in Elim. That's how many he had when he won two years ago.
All mushers begin the race with 16 dogs and must finish with at least five. Mushers often drop off dogs that are sick, slow or too tired to continue. The dogs are then sent home.
Eleven mushers have scratched. Among the 68 mushers still in the running, legally blind rookie Rachael Scdoris of Bend, Ore., was near the end of the pack.
The winner of the 33rd running of the Iditarod will receive $72,066.67 and a pickup truck. The total purse this year is $750,107, of which $705,000 will go to the top 30 finishers.
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