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Zirkle maintains lead in Alaska's Iditarod race

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RACHEL D'ORO | March 9, 2014 04:52 PM EST | AP

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Aliy Zirkle was holding on to the lead Sunday in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, leaving a checkpoint on Alaska's wind-scoured western coast almost an hour ahead of her closest rival.

The 44-year-old musher from Two Rivers, Alaska, left the Norton Sound village of Shaktoolik with 11 dogs at 7:12 a.m. Sunday for the 50-mile run to the next checkpoint at Koyuk.

She was followed at 8 a.m. by four-time champion Jeff King and his 12-dog team.

Zirkle has come in second place in the last two years in the nearly 1,000-mile race to Nome, 221 miles west of Shaktoolik. She is seeking to become only the third woman to win the race, and the first woman to win since the late Susan Butcher in 1990.

Other front runners who left Shaktoolik Sunday were four-time champion Martin Buser, in third place, followed by veterans Sonny Lindner and Aaron Burmeister. Sixth out of Shaktoolik was 2012 Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey, who clocked out of the checkpoint at 10:28 a.m., followed 26 minutes later by his father, defending champion Mitch Seavey.

The racers, who have five more checkpoints after Koyuk and before Nome, are expected to begin arriving in Nome by Tuesday.

While the front-runners were gunning up the Bering Sea coast, volunteers and Nome city crews were busily preparing the old gold rush town for the coming onslaught of dog teams and spectators. Dog lots were being readied and volunteers at the town's mini convention center were folding souvenir T-shirts to be sold. Early Sunday morning, the famed burled arch marking the finish line was moved by bulldozer from a city parking lot to its yearly spot on Front Street.

Temperatures in Nome hovered slightly above zero Sunday, which brought clear skies and brilliant sunshine. Snowfall has been light this winter in the frontier town of nearly 3,700, so the city has been stockpiling snow, which was being trucked to Front Street for the final stretch to the finish line.

The race began March 2 in Willow with 69 teams. As of late Sunday morning, 16 mushers had scratched, leaving 53 teams on the trail, which was marked by long stretches of bare and rocky ground that made for an icy, treacherous trail in the early part of the race.

Zirkle on Saturday was the first musher to reach the coast community of Unalakleet, but she thought she was running second behind Buser, learning only later that he was resting at a cabin. Thinking she was running second, she wasn't all hyped up thinking she was first, she said before taking off from the Unalakleet Saturday night.

"I made the run really mellow," she said in a video posted on the Iditarod website.

King, who last won in 2006, left Unalakleet 69 minutes later, saying he and his dogs were feeling great. King, 58, has been battling a stiff back, shoulders and arms all winter, but was feeling "loose as a cucumber now," he said in an Iditarod video.

"Man, my aches and pains go way when I rattle down the trail," he said. "I swear it."

The first to reach Nome receives $50,000 and a new truck. The 29 teams after that win cash prizes decreasing on a sliding scale. All other teams finishing the race receive $1,049.