Updated 9:41 a.m.:
While Martin Buser and the other front-runners are taking their mandatory 24-hour rests in Takotna, Robert Nelson and Kelley Griffin went through the remote checkpoint on Wednesday morning, taking the lead on the trail to Nome. Neither has taken their 24-hour rest.
Twenty-nine mushers had checked into Takotna by Wednesday morning, a popular resting place.
Fifty-eight mushers are still on the trail. Two Rivers musher Jessica Hendricks scratched Tuesday in Nikolai. She was down to eight dogs because of injuries.
McGRATH — Martin Buser is moving faster than he did upon setting the standard nine years ago — but wasn’t interested in talking about records Tuesday after surging to the front of the Iditarod.
With Lance Mackey entrenched as a four-time defending champion and the field as deep as ever, few listed the 51-year-old from Big Lake among this year’s favorites. He’s placed outside the top 10 five of the last seven years, after all.
That changed suddenly on Tuesday when Buser blitzed from Rohn to Takotna at about a 10 mile-per-hour pace.
Buser’s team is built for speed, and the hard and fast trail has obliged him to this point. Buser reached McGrath — which is 400 miles into the 1,150-mile race — about 2 1/2 hours faster than his 2002 record run of 8 days, 22 hours, 46 minutes.
“It’s his race to lose,” Tok musher Hugh Neff said of Buser. “He’s flying by all of us.”
That assessment may be premature, given the multitude of obstacles that could still slow both Buser and the trail down.
Buser hasn’t hit any speed bumps yet — though he received a scare on Monday when five dogs got loose and had to be located after a tangle on the way to Rainy Pass. Buser said his pace thus far has been nothing extraordinary and he’s trying to reign in his 15 remaining huskies.
“We’re going way faster than some of the old guys want to go. I’m still using the drag to slow the team down,” he said from Nikolai as his squad rested in Tuesday’s late-morning sun. “We haven’t opened up yet.”
The topic of a speed record was one Buser said he didn’t care to think about, but he’s certainly interested in another record: a surprise victory would be his fifth and tie him with Rick Swenson for the most all-time.
That mark is one Mackey has been eyeing, and he’s trying to do it consecutively. The Swiss-turned-American citizen was on Mackey’s mind when he blew through McGrath Tuesday evening 1 1/2 hours behind Buser.
“Did Martin stop here?” Mackey said, likely knowing the answer before he signed an autograph and quickly dropped back onto the Kuskokwim River in pursuit.
With a sizable crowd gathered in the village of about 500, Buser stopped in McGrath for barely a minute — long enough to accept the PenAir Spirit of Alaska Award and drop a dog named Flash but not long enough to mingle with fans.
“Boy, that was an anticlimax,” a spectator said after Buser’s cameo appearance.
Meanwhile, Mackey has four fewer dogs in the hunt after a tough day that saw him lose two trusted leaders in Golden Harness Award winner Maple along with Lippy.
“I’ve got a world-class dog team falling apart before my very eyes,” Mackey lamented from Nikolai, adding that he suspects a virus or the early stages of kennel cough could be the culprit.
The 75-mile stretch from Rohn to Nikolai was particularly frustrating after Mackey hauled three dogs much of the way and averaged barely 5 miles per hour.
“I could have crawled faster on my hands and knees,” Mackey said.
Mackey’s dream goal of finishing with 16 dogs has been dashed and for now he’s forced to run a bit more conservatively and regroup with his remaining 12. But in recent years he has bemoaned teams that weren’t running to their potential — then recovered to win. Mackey also pointed out that Buser once left Nikolai with 10 dogs and still took second.
“I’m not going down without a fight,” Mackey said.
Sebastian Schnuelle, Neff, Ray Redington, Jr., Mitch Seavey and Robert Bundtzen all blew through McGrath within an hour of Mackey. Many mushers take their 24-hour layover 18 miles farther down the trail in Takotna, though some press on to Ophir at Mile 444.
Meanwhile, 2010 runnerup Hans Gatt slipped to eighth place and was worried about being saddled with kennel cough. He planned to “babysit” his team with medicine, extra rest and short runs until they improve.
“Basically you can’t race,” he said before grabbing a nap at the Nikolai school.