March 15, 2016 / 2:33 AM / 2 years ago

Repeat champ leads pack as Alaska's Iditarod dog sled race enters home stretch

JUNEAU, Alaska (Reuters) - One musher in Alaska’s grueling sled-dog race appears to stand between Dallas Seavey’s third consecutive Iditarod title and a painful second place finish – his father, Mitch.

Dallas Seavey and team leave the start chute at the restart of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Willow, Alaska March 6, 2016. REUTERS/Nathaniel Wilder

As competitors in the nearly 1,000-mile race through the U.S. state’s frigid wilderness, father and son have been exchanging the lead while being pushed by upstart Brent Sass and perennial contender Aliy Zirkle.

Based on last year’s times, a winner could cross the finish line in Nome as early as 4 a.m. local time (1200 GMT) on Tuesday.

Dallas Seavey, who is looking for his third successive title and fourth win overall, left White Mountain late afternoon, about 77 miles (124 km) from the finish line. His father departed about 30 minutes later.

At White Mountain, all mushers must take a mandatory 8-hour rest, so the son was able to leave first. Last year, son and father finished first and second.

“We all know too well what can happen,” Dallas Seavey said in an interview posted on the Iditarod website. “I have way too much respect for my competitors to say I’ve won it anytime before we’ve actually crossed the finish line.”

Should either Seavey prevail, it would be the fifth straight year a family member has won the race.

Dallas, now 29, won in 2012 to become the youngest winner in race history. Mitch, now 56, won in 2013 to become the oldest competitor to win - it was his second victory.

“It’s 50-50,” Mitch Seavey said. “Either I will or I won’t.”

The Iditarod commemorates a 1925 rescue mission that carried diphtheria serum by sled-dog relay to the coastal community of Nome. The trail cutting through Alaska’s tundra to the Bering Sea coastline is marked by darkness and steep climbs.

Of the 85 mushers and their dogs that set off on March 6, 11 mushers have withdrawn from the race. While most of the competitors are from Alaska, racers have come from Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

This year’s winner will receive $70,000 and a new pick-up truck, while other top finishers will take home cash prizes from a race purse that exceeds $725,000.

The leaders may face fierce winds that have been powerful enough to alter the race’s outcome. Two years ago, winds knocked four-time winner Jeff King off the trail, paving the way for Dallas Seavey.

Overnight forecasts call for 30-mph (48 kph) wind gusts and temperatures pushing 10 below zero Fahrenheit (-23 c) along the Norton Sound where competitors will make their final push.

Zirkle, who has posted three runner-up finishes in the last four years, has had to fight more than the tundra this year. On Sunday, a man accused of attacking Zirkle and another musher in a snowmobile appeared in court.

One dog was killed and three other dogs were injured in the incident.

Reporting by Steve Quinn in Juneau; Editing by Eric M. Johnson, Brendan O'Brien, Toni Reinhold

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