By MARK THIESSEN, Associated Press
NOME, Alaska (AP) — The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is Dallas Seavey's to lose at this point.
Seavey had an hour advantage over the nearest musher as he set out Tuesday morning on the last 77-mile stretch of the nearly 1,000-mile race across Alaska.
The 25-year-old Willow musher is described by his own father and fellow Iditarod competitor Mitch Seavey as "fiercely competitive." The former Alaska high school wrestling champion, who also spent a year at the U.S. Olympic Training Center before turning his attention back to dogs, was the first musher to reach the White Mountain checkpoint at 12:14 a.m. Alaska time.
Once mushers reach White Mountain, they are required to take an eight-hour layover to rest their dogs.
Seavey was the first musher to leave White Mountain, setting out on the trail with team of nine dogs at 8:22 a.m.
"It's not clear sailing for him at this point still, there's still some good challenges," said Erin McLarnon, race spokesman.
Those challenges include going across the Topkok Mountains and the chance for ground storms, then wind along the shoreline after descending.
"I've lost my dog team in the Topkok Mountains in a very bad ground storm, because those ground storms can come out of nowhere," said McLarnon, who is a musher.
Once competitors hit the coast, wind can create challenges for the mushers and their dog teams, especially for the last few miles before hitting the final checkpoint in Safety, 22 miles from Nome.
"That can be a terribly windy, open, exposed area along there," McLarnon said from race headquarters in Nome. "We've been getting some breezes in here, so my guess is, it's probably some good wind."
Race officials say this pace should put the winner into Nome either late Tuesday afternoon or early evening.
Aliy Zirkle, a 41-year-old musher from Two Rivers, was the second to arrive in White Mountain, pulling in with 10 dogs at 1:25 a.m. She left at 9:25 a.m., exactly eight hours later.
Her team was running faster than Seavey's, but she also is running out of time to catch the 2011 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race winner.
Zirkle covered the 46-mile stretch from the Elim checkpoint to White Mountain in 7 hours, 37 minutes, while it took Seavey 8 hours, 49 minutes to run the stretch.
Three other mushers were also taking their eight-hour layovers in White Mountain, including Ramey Smyth, 36, of Willow; Aaron Burmeister, 36, of Nenana; Peter Kaiser, 23, of Bethel; John Baker, 49, of Kotzebue, and 2004 champion Mitch Seavey, 52, of Seward.
Sixty-six teams began the race on March 4 north of Anchorage. Ten mushers have scratched, including the latest, Gerry Willomitzer from Whitehorse, Yukon, on Tuesday morning.
Race officials said he decided to scratch in Unalakleet because his 12-dog team was no longer enjoying the race.
Among the 56 mushers left on the trail are 12 rookies. Brent Sass is doing the best among the rookies, at 13th place on Tuesday.
The 32-year-old is originally from Excelsior, Minn., but moved to Fairbanks, where he operates Wild and Free Mushing, his kennel and guiding business.
Sass got a surprise when he arrived at the Unalakleet checkpoint on Sunday. His high school friend, Mike Coumbe of Minneapolis, flew to Alaska to cheer on his friend — with an unusual twist. He attempted to dye his naturally dark brown hair to match the black and yellow team colors of Sass's kennel.
It didn't go that well, and instead he wound up with mostly yellow and green patches, in varying patterns.
"It turned it into a zebra and a seal, I guess, from what I'm hearing," Coumbe said Monday after arriving in Nome for the finish.
"We tried to do black and yellow and it turned out into a bunch of different colors with stripes and polka dots, but so far, everybody's liking it," said Coumbe, who is also a co-host of the satellite television show "Bowhunting Addiction, TV."
Brent's dad, Mark Sass, has spent the last three months cheering on his son at various checkpoints in several races, including the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod.
He's taken three months off from his remodeling contracting business in Minneapolis, and said he's put 5,500 miles on his truck in that time following races.