By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Champion musher Mitch Seavey and his son, Dallas, each battled for the lead in Alaska's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Friday, while another competitor was making a push to become the first woman since 1990 to win the roughly 1,000-mile event.
Aliy Zirkle, 41, from Two Rivers, Alaska, held the lead on Friday afternoon as the top contenders passed the halfway mark of the race.
Zirkle, one of 17 women racing this year, departed the Athabascan Indian village of Ruby, the first checkpoint along the Yukon River, at 9:04 a.m. on Friday and was still 480 miles from the finish line in Nome.
Zirkle and the Seaveys have been leap-frogging each other for the past few days. The three teams were using different rest schedules, and the exact standings were likely to change after they complete a mandatory eight-hour Yukon River layover.
The winner of this year's race will take home $50,400 and a new truck, part of an overall prize purse of more than $550,000 for an event that has grown from an obscure contest many considered a one-time lark into a world-famous sports extravaganza.
Mitch Seavey, of Seward, won the 2004 Iditarod. His son, Dallas, 25, lives in Willow, Alaska, where he maintains his own sled-dog kennel. Zirkle in 2000 became the first woman to win the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International sled dog race. Susan Butcher won the last of her four Iditarod championships in 1990, and no woman has won since although Dee Dee Jonrowe of Willow has finished in second place twice. Libby Riddles in 1985 became the first woman to claim the Iditarod crown.
In a videotaped interview with the Anchorage Daily News, Dallas Seavey said he was working hard to beat his father to the Nome finish line.
"I may go ahead and just make a move if I need to, and either close that gap completely or get out in front a little bit," he told the newspaper in Ruby.
Strategies and standings could easily change, the younger Seavey said in the interview, posted on Friday on the newspaper's website.
"It's still early in this race. I know it feels like the end. But we've only really been racing for a short while now. The whole first half is just getting down the trail and getting into position," he said.
Aside from his father and Zirkle, defending champion John Baker could also be in position to win, Dallas Seavey told the Daily News.
Baker, 49 and from Kotzebue, was the first Inupiat Eskimo to win the race and last year set the speed record of eight days, 18 hours and 46:39 minutes. He was in fourth place as of Friday afternoon, reaching Ruby 83 minutes after Dallas Seavey.
The patriarch of the Seavey family, Mitch's 74-year-old father, Dan, is a veteran of the first Iditarod, held in 1973. Dan Seavey is running the race this year, for the fourth time, to promote the history of the century-old trail. As of Friday afternoon, Dan Seavey was in 61st place.
Sixty-six mushers and their dog teams started the Iditarod in downtown Anchorage on Saturday. So far, three teams have dropped out, a relatively low number compared to past years. Mushers have said the heavy snowfalls in Alaska this winter made the trail safer than usual.
So far there have been no dog deaths, and no dogs died in last year's race or in the 2010 contest.
However, there was a close call when a dog on Scott Janssen's team dropped and stopped breathing on Monday night. Janssen, an Anchorage funeral-home owner who nicknames himself the "Mushin' Mortician," resuscitated the dog and sent the animal back to Anchorage to rest and recover.
The Anchorage Daily News on Thursday reported the rescue with this headline: "Raising the Dead."
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)