Originally created 03/10/99

Iditarod frontrunners laying low outside Nikolai



NIKOLAI, Alaska -- Montana musher Doug Swingley defied the collective thinking of his fellow frontrunners Tuesday, leading racers into the Nikolai checkpoint in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Swingley, who won the 1995 Iditarod, drove his 14-dog team into this tiny Athabaskan Indian village at 1:38 p.m. Alaska time.

Others in the lead pack hunkered down on the snowy tundra outside Nikolai, waiting for the warmest part of the day to pass before starting to move again.

"For my dogs, this is cold weather," said Swingley, the only non-Alaskan ever to win the race.

Nikolai, on the south fork of the Kuskokwim River, is about 315 miles into the 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome. The race began Sunday.

Defending champion Jeff King arrived in Nikolai about a half-hour after Swingley. He was limping and in obvious pain.

"I twisted my knee and it hurts like hell," said King. "I almost lost my team."

King said he fell off his sled Monday between Finger Lake and Rainy Pass, on what many mushers described as a particularly rough stretch of trail. He said that while his right knee was painful, he would be able to stand up on it "as long as I don't have to do any fancy dancing."

DeeDee Jonrowe, last year's runner-up, was third into Nikolai, followed by Norwegian Harald Tunheim and John Barron.

Jonrowe was the first musher out of the Rohn Roadhouse checkpoint, about 90 miles before Nikolai, at 12:06 a.m. Tuesday. Within an hour she was followed by Mitch Seavey, Ramey Smyth and Charlie Boulding. None of them spent more than a few minutes at the checkpoint.

Three-time winner Martin Buser left Rohn at 2:57 a.m. after nearly seven hours of rest, and defending champion Jeff King hit the trail at 4:12 a.m. after a six-hour break.

By late morning, more than two dozen mushers had come and gone from Rohn, and another dozen had reached the checkpoint. They crowded into a small cabin to eat, rest and tell tales about their race so far.

Frank Teasley of Wyoming, an Iditarod veteran back after a five-year hiatus, said his race plan was thrown off early when he shredded a sled runner, but had to keep using it for some 50 miles.

"Things have gotten better since that discovery," Teasley said. "I wasn't having any fun till then."

Ken Anderson, a rookie from Fairbanks, ran his dogs from the Rainy Pass checkpoint to Rohn -- a distance of 48 miles -- with very little rest. He said his team was pooped out and that he would likely be forced to take his mandatory 24-hour rest stop at Rohn to let them recharge.

"It was a rookie mistake," Anderson said. "That's a real tough trail, and I underestimated what that would do to the dogs."

Jon Little, another Iditarod rookie, had been touted as a possible top-20 finisher, but he too was rethinking his strategy. He had been forced to drop five of his 16 dogs in the first 200 miles due to shoulder injuries.

"I remember thinking 'Oh my God, what have I done?"' Little said after leaving four dogs at Skwentna, 100 miles into the race. "I'm having more fun now -- it's a challenge to keep them going for another 800 miles or so."