ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Almost every musher says Aliy Zirkle will win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
But they're quick to add, it won't be this year — if they can help it.
Zirkle is attempting to become only the third woman ever to win the nearly thousand-mile race across Alaska and the first since the late Susan Butcher won her fourth title in 1990. Zirkle has come close the last two years, finishing second in both races.
Some are wondering if this, her 14th Iditarod, is the year she breaks through.
"I would like it to be," Zirkle said. "I think every single year, you go to the same starting line that you did the year before, and you start fresh."
But she is realistic, knowing that there are other forces at play besides her 16-member dog team, which — incidentally — she calls her best ever.
"Me, being dog No. 17, I hope I can coach them and keep them full together. I think that's probably the wild card. The team is not a wild card," she said. "But it really comes down to what a musher's prepared for, what their skills are if they make the right decisions at the right time."
Zirkle was running in 11th place Wednesday. Aaron Burmeister led the race and was the first musher to reach the checkpoint in Cripple. That's the halfway mark of the race, and he received $3,000 in placer gold nuggets for the accomplishment. He's attempting to become the first Nome native to win the Iditarod.
Tough, snowless conditions have taken their toll on mushers. So far, 11 mushers from the original field of 69 have scratched, and race officials withdrew another.
The race started Sunday near Anchorage and will finish sometime early next week in the Bering Sea coastal town of Nome, on Alaska's western coast.
Zirkle's team is also well prepped for the race. Her husband, Allen Moore, just won his second concurrent Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, considered by many to be the toughest sled dog race in the world and a race Zirkle won in 2000.
Moore also is racing in the Iditarod, but has given his Yukon Quest winning team to Zirkle.
"She's a great musher, and she will run them well," said Moore, who will run a young team in the race as a teaching moment for them. "Barring any injuries, hopefully she can be up in the front."
Is she the sentimental favorite?
"You know, I would think so, especially being a woman, most people want her to win anyway, especially coming in second the last two years in a row," he said.
Zirkle, who was born in Manchester, New Hampshire, in 1969, first came to Alaska in 1990, midway through getting a degree in biology from the University of Pennsylvania. She lived in a wall tent on the Alaska Peninsula, counting birds for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
She returned to college, finished her degree in 1992 and headed straight back to Alaska. After she and Moore married, they built their home in Two Rivers, Alaska, where they hunt moose in the fall and garden in the summer.
The defending champion, Mitch Seavey, beat Zirkle into Nome by 24 minutes last year.
"I told her at the finish line that I think she'll probably win the Iditarod some day. If she keeps at it, I'll bet money she will. She's very competitive," he said.
But this may not be the year.
"Of the several people who are competitive, she has as good a chance as anybody," Seavey said. "Is it her year? No, there's three of four other people so the odds are it's not her year."
In 2012, Mitch's son, Dallas, beat Zirkle to the finish line by an hour. He said Zirkle has handled coming in second the last two years with the utmost grace.
"Strategically, I will try to find weaknesses in her racing style that I will try to take to take advantage of, as with every musher that I think is going to be a challenge out there," Dallas Seavey said.
"But I can't imagine there being a weakness in her character. She is the ultimate competitor when it comes to character on the race," he said.