Iditarod 2013: Lance Mackey claims halway award, Martin Buser in pursuit

Ophir checkpoint - Loren Holmes/Alaska Dispatch

Lance Mackey claimed the lead on paper in the 2013 Iditarod, reaching the halfway point of the race late Wednesday night. But Martin Buser is hot in pursuit as the mushers head for the Yukon River.

Four-time champion Lance Mackey has claimed the lead in the 2013 Iditarod, pulling in to the Iditarod checkpoint at 8:36 p.m. local time, roughly an hour and a half ahead of Sonny Lindner. For being the first musher to reach Iditarod, the halfway point of the race on the southern route, Mackey was awarded $3,000 in gold nuggets. The previous two times Mackey won the GCI Dorothy G. Page Halfway Award, in 2007 and 2009, he went on to win the race.

Mackey and Lindner were joined in Iditarod by Jeff King, another four-time winner (most recently in 2006), who checked in at 1:06 a.m. Thursday morning. All three mushers have opted to take their mandatory 24-hour layover after making the 80-mile run from Ophir.

The trio's rest should mean that Martin Buser, the race leader on paper (he has already taken his 24-hour layover) will soon become the race leader on the trail, too. Buser shook up the race when he made a 20-hour run to Rohn, stopping for less than 90 minutes along the way. Now everyone waits to see how his dogs will respond -- in the 40-year history of the Last Great Race, no one has ever made the run from Willow to Rohn non-stop. But so far, so good.

Buser spent about three and a half hours at Ophir before pulling out at 7:48 p.m. with all 14 dogs. He's being chased by Jason Mackey, Jim Lanier, Aaron Burmeister, Mitch Seavey, Ally Zirkle and Jake Berkowitz, the latter four of whom have already completed their own 24-hour layovers (complete standings).

After Iditarod, mushers set their sights on the Shageluk and Anvik checkpoints, the second of which marks the beginning of the part of the trail that follows Yukon River. And with the Yukon River comes some of the race's most dangerous weather.

Forecasts are calling for snow, freezing rain and wind gusts expected to reach 30 to 50 mph. [...]

"I guess if the wind picks up like it's supposed to ... it could make a big difference," Bethel's Pete Kaiser told Iditarod Insider while finishing his 24 in Takotna. "If you're battling 30-mph winds across a trail that's already not much of a trail and it's drifted in ... it could be a game changer."

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Mike Ellis's furry Siberian husky, via @IditarodLive

But the winter weather could actually be a welcomed relief for the teams, particularly the dogs. Temperatures so far have been warm -- in the 30s -- which is well beyond the comfort zone of the dogs, which prefer single digits.

"I'm amazed they have gone this fast with how hot it's been," said Angie Taggart, a Ketchikan teacher and back-of-the-pack musher in Nikolai, where temperatures were in the high 20s Wednesday. "My dogs are really having a hard time."

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