ANCHORAGE, Alaska — There comes a time during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race when fatigue can turn Alaska’s frozen landscape into an unlikely habitat for an elephant that really isn’t there.
Ask Lynda Plettner, a former participant in the 1,000-mile race. The Big Lake, Alaska, musher was so sleep-deprived once that she saw a large gray African elephant in the distance trudging in the snow toward a metal building that had no doors or windows. Both the elephant and the building got bigger as Plettner got closer and her weary brain focused on getting the dogs safely past them before it dawned on her that she was hallucinating.
“I concluded that that couldn’t possibly be there,” she said.
Participants in this year’s race are struggling with their own exhaustion in their journey toward the finish line in Nome on Alaska’s western coast. But they keep on mushing anyway.
Four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser of Big Lake reclaimed the lead Friday afternoon that was taken earlier by Aliy Zirkle, last year’s runner-up. Zirkle of Two Rivers had been the first to reach the village of Grayling, a checkpoint on the Yukon River, which is the trail for 238 miles of the race, but Buser caught up and left before Zirkle.
Buser was first into the previous checkpoint at Anvik early Friday. But he decided to take a mandatory eight-hour break there, while Zirkle blew out of the village one minute after arriving. Zirkle arrived at Grayling 18 miles away almost three hours before Buser, but he caught up and left the village after only 10 minutes.
Teams must take the eight-hour layover at one checkpoint on the frozen Yukon River. Mushers also may take the layover at Shageluk — 25 miles east of the river — during odd numbered years when the village is included in a part of the race that takes a southern route.