ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The top teams in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race bunched up Sunday before the last mad dash to Nome along the Bering Sea coast.
Aliy Zirkle, a 41-year-old musher from Two Rivers, picked up a gold cup and $2,500 in gold nuggets for being the first to reach Alaska's western coast, pulling in to the Norton Sound community at 7:28 a.m. Alaska time Sunday. Cheering race fans lined up to greet Zirkle and her team of 12 dogs.
She didn't have the checkpoint to herself for very long.
Dallas Seavey, 25, of Willow came charging in from the last checkpoint, in Kaltag. He ran the 85-mile route between Kaltag and Unalakleet nearly two hours faster than Zirkle, and arrived at 8:19 a.m. Aaron Burmeister followed Seavey just 11 minutes later, and defending champion John Baker pulled in a 9:08 a.m.
"Dallas definitely made a big jump," race spokeswoman Erin McLarnon said by telephone from Nome. "He's picking up a little bit of momentum. It'll be interesting. Those top four teams are basically within an hour-and-a-half of each other."
Burmeister was the first musher back on the trail with hopes of being the first into his hometown of Nome.
Burmeister took a four-hour-and-five-minute break before leading his team of 14 dogs on a snowmachine trail to Shaktoolik at 12:30 p.m.
Seavey was close behind him, leaving Unalakleet six minutes later, and they were running neck-and-neck, according to GPS tracking on the Iditarod website. Zirkle took off at 1:01 p.m.
"Aliy's definitely maintained that lead over the course of the race, and like I said, Dallas did a pretty amazing run across the Kaltag portage, as well as Aaron Burmeister. And John Baker's no sleeper, either," McLarnon said.
"Right now, I don't think you can pinpoint a winner," she said.
Besides Baker, five other mushers were into Unalakleet, including Seavey's father, Mitch Seavey, the 2004 champion. Also taking a break were Ryan Redington Jr. of Wasilla, Peter Kaiser of Bethel and Ramey Smyth of Willow.
Four-time champion Jeff King scratched Sunday in Unalakleet. Race officials said he had 13 dogs in his team when he made the decision.
Jake Berkowitz of Big Lake, running in sixth place, was withdrawn by Race Marshall Mark Nordman. Iditarod officials said Berkowitz severely injured his hand while using a knife between Kaltag and Unalakleet and that Nordman determined that the injury was severe enough to pull Berkowitz. The musher was to be flown to Anchorage for treatment.
Burmeister, 36, was born and raised in Nome. He earned a teaching degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1988, but is a manager for a construction company. According to his biography on the Iditarod website, he and his family moved from Nome to Nenana 10 years ago for more favorable training conditions and to be on the state's road system.
A 12-time finisher in the race, he took off the last two years to focus on family and career.
Zirkle is running 10 dogs from her husband's team that placed second in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race last month. Before the Iditarod started, she told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner that the team looked "ridiculous good."
"Honestly, it's a team that can certainly win. But you know, you have to make the right decisions while you're out there," she said. "You have to watch your crew and hold them together. Anything can happen," she told the News-Miner.
The race began March 4 with 66 teams; seven are out of the race.
Rookies Pat Moon of Chicago, who was down to seven dogs, and Josh Cadzow, of Fort Yukon, also scratched. Cadzow, who was down to nine dogs, made the decision to leave the race in Kaltag in the best interest of his team, according to race officials.
The total purse is $550,000 for the first 30 finishers, with the winner receiving $50,400 and a new truck. The winner is expected in Nome early this week.
And Nome is getting ready for the annual influx of mushers and race fans.
McLarnon said volunteers were spending Sunday getting everything set up, including putting the finish line chute.
"The excitement is building," she said.