McGRATH, Alaska -- Four-time champ Martin Buser from Big Lake was at the front of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race chasing history north toward the old ghost town of Iditarod on Tuesday evening.
No musher past age 50 has ever won the 900-mile race from Anchorage to Nome. Buser is 51, closing in on 52.
Only one musher, the legendary Rick Swenson from Two Rivers, has won five Iditarods. Four of those came in a six-year span between 1977 and 1982, during which Swenson never finished worse than fourth. It would be nine long years before he notched win number five in historic fashion, driving through a storm that turned back all the competition save Buser.
Buser's second-place finish in 1991 was a breakthrough success. He won the Iditarod for the very first time the next year. Three more victories followed. They ended in 2002.
Buser is now running his ninth race without a win, just as Swenson was in 1991. And when Buser sped through this checkpoint without really stopping, he moved into position to control things. Hard, fast trail conditions are suited to his dogs, which have always been more about fast runs and long rests than grinding out the miles at a more pedestrian pace and taking shorter rests -- as is the case with some other teams.
Temperatures, too, are playing to Buser's strengths. His dogs, trained on the trails near his Big Lake home, are acclimated to warmer temperatures. Days with the thermometer in the 20s allow them to rest well. Nights with temperatures near zero are their perfect running conditions.
The same cannot be said for the dogs of Interior mushers like defending champ and fellow four-time winner Lance Mackey from Fairbanks. Their bodies have adjusted to life at 40 or 50 degrees below zero. The exertion of running at zero or warmer can pretty easily lead them to overheat and falter. Mackey, who was chasing Buser Tuesday, confessed to being worried about the heat.