ANCHORAGE -

Aliy Zirkle was a distant sixth into Ruby, arriving just minutes after midnight, but by early Friday morning, she’d passed four-time winners Martin Buser and Jeff King out of Ruby and was the first musher into Galena.

For Zirkle it was a return to form, unleashing speeds north of 8.5 mph she hasn’t posted since Ophir. Running dogs that won this year’s Yukon Quest under the guidance of her husband and Iditarod competitor Allen Moore, she chugged from Ruby to Galena with a team of 14 dogs after spending just nine minutes in Ruby. That gives Zirkle a nearly three-hour head start down the river over the competition, but somewhere along the Yukon she has to take her 8-hour rest, and one of the race’s fiercest competitors is right behind her.

Martin Buser took his mandatory 8-hour Yukon River layover in Ruby after taking a relatively early 24-hour rest in Nikolai. He's slowly moved up the ranks and was primed to re-take first when he left Ruby until Zirkle leapt out ahead this morning. Buser gave chase by 2:44 a.m., but with exceptionally well-rested dogs and fast speeds posted on a faster trail, Buser could soon find himself in the lead later today further down the river.

But Buser is out of rest at this point, and down to 14 dogs after dropping one in Ruby. Until another mandatory 8-hour rest in White Mountain, any time Buser takes to recharge his team will be time he loses against the competition.

Chasing both Zirkle and Buser to Galena is Nome-born musher Aaron Burmeister, down to 12 dogs since the race midpoint in Cripple. Burmeister has slowed his pace with his 12 dogs, and after taking his 24 in Cripple, he spent just one minute in Ruby before chasing down the leaders.

Burmeister is ostensibly in third place, but Norwegian two-time champ Robert Sorlie is just two hours behind, out of Ruby at 6:34 this morning. With both his mandatory 24-hour rest and his 8-hour Yukon rest behind him, and a near-full team of 15 dogs, Sorlie will likely pass Burmeister whenever he takes his own “Yukon 8.”

Meanwhile, back in Ruby, longtime race veteran Sonny Lindner will have finished his 24-hour rest by 7:41 a.m. The race GPS shows him well on his way to Galena behind Sorlie.

And then there’s Jeff King, the man who led the race to the Yukon, waiting out his 24-hour rest, along with the more than two hours stacked on to his time to make up for the staggered start back in Willow. (Lindner, as the last musher out of Willow, faces no such added time.) King will rejoin the race just before 9 a.m. Friday.

With his history of eating away at competitor’s leads with his quick pace, King may leave Ruby just barely in the top ten, but there’s no doubt he’ll be nipping at the heels of the race leaders before the Yukon ends and musher’s take to the coast for the final miles to Nome.