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High Expectations As Iditarod Races On

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Last Sunday, I was in Alaska standing at the starting line for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The annual 1,161-mile race takes mushers across the state from Anchorage to Nome, through harsh terrain and bitter cold. Tim Bodony is a reporter with Alaska Public Radio Network. He is in Kaltag, Alaska. Good morning, Tim.

Mr. TIM BODONY (Reporter, Alaska Public Radio Network): Good morning, Liane.

HANSEN: Now, you're at a checkpoint there near the Yukon. What team is looking strongest to you so far?

Mr. BODONY: Well, that's really hard to say. That's an interesting development in this race, which has become probably the most competitive race in recent memory. The lead is up for grabs, but John Baker is a name to watch as the race moves into the final stages. He is an Alaskan native from Kotzebue. He has a very strong team. He usually has larger dogs that are built for the tough conditions he deals with out on the coast.

Hugh Neff is also doing very well - nickname: Huge Mess. An interesting character originally from the Chicago area, has yet to win a race, and has burned out several times near the end but he also has a very strong team.

HANSEN: What have the conditions been like thus far, both in terms of weather and the trail?

Mr. BODONY: The conditions have been outstanding for people, though challenging at times for dogs, and challenging in that we've seen temperatures around 10 to 20 above zero - that may be chilly for you but that's warm for Alaskans and very warm for sled dogs. Overnight temperatures, though, have been much better and more conducive to running.

The skies have been clear. I haven't seen a cloud for what seems like weeks. That has somehow led to a very fast race, despite those warm temperatures during the day. Mushers at the front are still finding a way to do the bulk of their traveling at night in the cooler weather.

HANSEN: This year's field is the smallest since 1999 - 62 mushers. And there are women. How are they doing?

Mr. BODONY: There are definitely two to three women who have been contending for a spot in the top 10. A fan favorite, Dee Dee Jonrowe, has been doing very well. Jessie Royer, also a younger musher from Fairbanks, is also putting a very strong team through the trail this year; and Aliy Zirkle, a former wildlife biologist who also lives in the Fairbanks, Alaska area, is running in the top 20.

HANSEN: So, from where you are and what you know, any predictions?

Mr. BODONY: I'm not going to do that on the radio. This is anybody's race. It's one of the most fascinating that I've been involved with in eight years in Alaska. They're all so close and running at such an amazingly fast rate. We could very easily see a new speed record this year.

HANSEN: Tim Bodony is a reporter with the Alaska Public Radio Network, and we reached him in Kaltag, Alaska. Thank you. Have fun.

Mr. BODONY: You're welcome.

HANSEN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.