Alaska sled dog race leaders minutes apart as Iditarod finish looms

ANCHORAGE, Alaska Tue Mar 12, 2013 3:59pm EDT

Aliy Zirkle leaves the start gate at the re-start of the Iditarod dog sled race in Willow, Alaska March 3, 2013. REUTERS/Nathaniel Wilder

Aliy Zirkle leaves the start gate at the re-start of the Iditarod dog sled race in Willow, Alaska March 3, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Nathaniel Wilder

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - A mere 13 minutes separated the top two mushers in Alaska's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Tuesday as they made their last major rest stop at an Inupiat Eskimo village before the final dash to the Bering Sea town of Nome.

Mitch Seavey, the 2004 race winner, arrived in the village of White Mountain at 5:11 a.m. Aliy Zirkle, last year's runner-up and the top woman in the race, arrived shortly after he did.

The annual race, which has grown from an obscure contest many considered a one-time lark into a world-famous, big-money sports extravaganza, began in Anchorage on March 2 and will finish in Nome.

White Mountain, 77 miles from the finish line in the 1,000-mile race, is the site of a mandatory eight-hour layover and, traditionally, the place where contenders plot their final strategies against each other.

Among the eight mushers who had reached White Mountain was four-time champion Jeff King, who arrived 88 minutes after Zirkle; Dallas Seavey, last year's champion and Mitch Seavey's son; and Ray Redington Jr., grandson of race founder Joe Redington Sr.

A win by Zirkle or King would make race history. Zirkle, the only woman to win the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, would be the first woman to win the Iditarod since 1990, when Susan Butcher claimed her fourth victory. A win by King would tie the five-victory record set by Butcher's main Iditarod rival, Rick Swenson.

The winner is expected in Nome on Tuesday evening, and will take home a new truck and $50,400. Sixty-six mushers began the race at its ceremonial start in Anchorage on March 2. Since then, six have dropped out of competition.

The Iditarod is run on a Gold Rush-era trail system that links Native villages and former mining settlements. While racers frequently contend with bitter cold, this year's competitors faced a different weather challenge - unseasonably warm weather, river melt and soft snow. In one stretch near the Bering Sea, they encountered rain.

The race commemorates a 1925 rescue mission that carried diphtheria serum to Nome by sled-dog relay. The name "Iditarod" derives from a local Athabascan term meaning "a far, distant place," according to race officials.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Bob Burgdorfer)

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