From Beth Bragg in Anchorage --
TUESDAY UPDATE, 10 p.m. -- Stopping long enough to accept her award for being the first to reach McGrath, Aliy Zirkle blasted through the village, still the Iditarod leader.
She arrived at 8:32 p.m. Tuesday and left at 8:36 p.m. with a full team of 16 dogs, according to Iditarod officials.
In a brief ceremony at the checkpoint, Zirkle received the PenAir Spirit of Alaska Award. Her prize is a spirit mask made by Bristol Bay artist Orville Lind and a $500 PenAir credit for travel or freight cargo.
John Baker also blew through McGrath, about half an hour behind Zirkle.
The defending champion arrived at 9:07 p.m. Tuesday and left at 9:12 -- minus one dog. He dropped one in McGrath and is running with 14 in harness.
McGrath is about one-third of the way through the 975-mile race from Anchorage to Nome.
The leaders should reach Takotna, 18 miles away, overnight. The village is a favorite spot for mushers to take their mandatory 24-hour layover.
TUESDAY UPDATE, 4:30 p.m. -- Iditarod 40 turned into a race of champions Tuesday afternoon.
Zirkle, the 2000 Quest champion, and Baker, the reigning Iditarod champion, were the first two mushers to reach Nikolai earlier Tuesday. After a rest of about four hours, they left together, with Zirkle driving 16 dogs and Baker 15.
An hour later, in a four-minute span, come this impressive group:
Jeff King (who left at 2:49 p.m.), winner of four Iditarods and one Quest; Lance Mackey (2:50 pm.), Mitch Seavey (2:51), winner of the 2004 Iditarod, and Hugh Neff (2:53 p.m.), the reigning Quest champion.
At 3:23 p.m., Paul Gebhardt hit the trail for McGrath, 48 miles away.
Most of the frontrunners, if not all of them, are expected to blow past McGrath and stop in Takotna, or beyond, for their 24-hour layover.
TUESDAY UPDATE, 1:45 p.m. -- Race leader Aliy Zirkle has just hit the trail out of Nikolai.
* * *
TUESDAY UPDATE, noon -- A train of teams is pulling into Nikolai -- 10 mushers are there now, with more on the way -- while the Iditarod's caboose is safe and sound in Rainy Pass.
Dan Seavey, 74 and the oldest musher in the race, reached Rainy Pass at 10:19 a.m. Tuesday, the last racer to reach the checkpoint.
And while this feels a little like talking about a no-hitter in the sixth inning, check it out:
We're into the third day of racing, and every team is still in the race. No one has scratched.
Seavey, an Iditarod pioneer who did the inaugural race in 1973, completed his run to Rainy Pass despite veering 16 miles off trail on his way out of Finger Lake, according to Iditarod Insider.
He and three others were still in Rainy Pass as of 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, according to the official standings.
Another three are on the trail to Rohn and 11 more are in Rohn.
Then there is a long train of teams -- 38 of them -- heading to Nikolai, where Aliy Zirkle sits in the lead.
Zirkle reached Nikolai with 16 dogs at 9:14 a.m. Tuesday. She owns a 22-minute lead over John Baker, who arrived second at 9:36 a.m.
At 9:59 a.m., Lance Mackey arrived, followed by Hugh Neff at 10:05 a.m.
Ray Redington Jr. was fifth to join the party (10:22 a.m.), and almost half an hour later five guys showed up in a 16-minute span: Mitch Seavey (10:50), Jeff King (10:52), Paul Gebhardt (10:56), Aaron Burmeister (11:03) and Dallas Seavey (11:06).
Let the games begin.
* * *
TUESDAY UPDATE, 9:30 a.m. -- Aliy Zirkle pulled into Nikolai at 9:14 Tuesday morning.
Defending champion John Baker was second to the checkpoint, arriving at 9:36 a.m. Four-time champion Lance Mackey was another 23 minutes back, arriving at 9:59 a.m. in third place.
Zirkle, who made the 75-mile run fron Rohn in 13 hours, 48 minutes, is traveling with many dogs that carried her husband, Allen Moore, to second place in last month's thousand-mile Yukon Quest. A post on her kennel's Facebook page indicates those battled-tested dogs are helping her set the early pace in the Iditarod:
"She is moving along steadily and is doing what she wanted to be able to do at this point in the race. Many of the dogs on her team have already run a thousand mile race. This is allowing her to keep a strong pace and doesn't seem to be lacking speed."
The race is a little more than an hour behind last year, when John Baker shattered the record. Martin Buser was the first into Nikolai a year ago, arriving at 8:05 a.m. Tuesday.
The pace could slow out of Nikolai. The Iditarod Insider reports that 6 to 10 inches of snow fell last night and today around Nikolai.
"(Trail breakers) say the snow is a light powder and shouldn’t be a major issue for the teams but we likely will see a decrease in speed as the teams head on to McGrath," according to Insider.
McGrath is 48 miles beyond Nikolai in Alaska's Interior. Takotna is another 18 miles after that, a spot where many frontrunners choose to take their mandatory 24-hour layover.
* * *
TUESDAY UPDATE, 8 a.m. -- While Aliy Zirkle and the rest of the frontrunners continue the long run to Nikolai and Alaska's Interior on Tuesday morning, the third day of racing began with this notable fact:
Nobody has scratched.
All but one musher in the field of 66 has made it safely to Rainy Pass, about 150 miles into the 975-mile race from Anchorage to Nome.
The only one not there yet is 74-year-old Dan Seavey, the Iditarod pioneer from Seward. He left Finger Lake for the 30-mile run to Rainy Pass at 6:45 a.m. Tuesday morning.
As of 7:30 a.m., 32 teams -- nearly half of the field -- are already out of Rohn and on their way to Nikolai, a 75-mile trip that crosses the Farewell Burn.
Another 21 are still in Rohn. Seven on are on the trail from Rainy Pass to Rohn, five are in Rainy Pass, and Seavey is on the trail out of Finger Lake.
Zirkle, the first musher to leave Rohn on Monday night, continues to lead the race, according to GPS tracking. The track shows she and John Baker are a couple of miles ahead of Lance Mackey and Hugh Neff, who in turn are a couple miles ahead of Ray Redington Jr.
Close behind is a sizeable pack that includes Rick Swenson, Jeff King, Sonny Lindner, Kelley Griffin, Paul Gebhardt, Gerry Willomitzer, Aaron Burmeister and the race's other two Seaveys, Mitch (son of Dan) and Dallas (grandson of Dan, son of Mitch).
However, Mitch Seavey's Facebook page just posted an update that offers a slightly different picture.
It says Zirkle is leading, followed by Baker, Mackey and Neff. Another hour back, it said, are the Seaveys and the rest of the pack "more or less in a big line," the post said.
"Either way, teams should start pouring into Nikolai in about 2 hours," it said.