ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A runner-up from the last two years and a four-time champion continued to play leapfrog Saturday at the head of the pack in the 2014 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and Aliy Zirkle became the first musher to reach the west coast of Alaska.
Zirkle, who has finished in second place the last two years, left the Yukon River village of Kaltag at 3:18 a.m. Saturday to retake the lead from Martin Buser. She pulled into Unalakleet at 4:39 p.m. after a 90-mile run.
Iditarod officials say she is down to 11 dogs.
Zirkle, 44, of Two Rivers, Alaska, paused only seven minutes at the Kaltag checkpoint before heading out on the 90-mile ride to Unalakleet, where teams turn north for the run to Nome along Alaska’s wind-swept west coast.
The last championship for Buser, 55, the Swiss-born resident of Big Lake, Alaska, came in 2002. He has not finished in the top 10 since 2008, but he led most of Friday as teams made a 47-mile run on the wide Yukon River from Galena to Kaltag.
Buser reached Kaltag at 2 a.m. Saturday, covering the distance at an average speed of 10.6 mph. Zirkle was a little faster at almost 11 mph.
Buser rested his team at Kaltag for three hours, 34 minutes, and left to pursue at 5:34 a.m. with 14 dogs, giving Zirkle a two-hour, 16 minute lead that could evaporate if she chose to rest along the trail.
No woman has won the race since Susan Butcher in 1990.
Zirkle and her husband, Allen Moore, train dogs at Two Rivers, Alaska, 24 miles west of Fairbanks. Zirkle takes the top dogs for the Iditarod.
Moore uses them in the Yukon Quest, the race between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, and has won it for two years in a row. Moore was in 35th place in the Iditarod with a secondary team Saturday.
Nicolas Petit of Girdwood, Alaska, was in third. He reached Kaltag at 6:56 a.m., rested just 18 minutes and left at 7:14, an hour and 45 minutes after Buser.
Two mushers with decades of experience followed later Saturday morning.
Sonny Lindner, 64, who has completed 18 Iditarods since 1978, reached Kaltag at 6:30 a.m., rested for two hours and departed at 8:32 a.m. The best finish for the Two Rivers musher was second in 1981.
Unalakleet is 261 miles from the finish line in Nome.