NOME, Alaska (AP) — In a year marked by injuries and dangerous conditions, the final stages of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race were coming down to either a record-tying number of wins or the first woman to claim victory in 24 years.
One of those appeared to be the likely outcome of this year's nearly 1,000-mile race across Alaska, as the first two mushers arrived at the second-to-last checkpoint Monday morning. They were Jeff King, 58, and Aliy Zirkle, 44, both of Alaska.
King, a four-time champion, is attempting to become the race's second five-time winner. He arrived at 7:02 a.m. at the White Mountain checkpoint, 77 miles from the finish line in Nome, and left at 3:02 p.m. AKST, fulfilling exactly the eight-hour rest requirement there.
Zirkle, 44, who has finished second in the last two Iditarods, arrived at 7:59 a.m. She began the chase for King on the Bering Sea ice when she left the checkpoint at 4 p.m.
A winner could reach the finish line as soon as early Tuesday, with mushers on what appears to be a record pace despite poor trail conditions.
Not to be counted out just yet is 2012 champion Dallas Seavey, who was running third and pulled into White Mountain at 9:48 a.m.
King and Zirkle have been leap-frogging each other in the latter portion of the race.
"We were flying through there," King told the Iditarod website following Sunday's run between the checkpoints in Elim and Koyuk.
"I really thought I would open up a big space between me and Aliy," he said. But he quickly added that, as he has done before, "I have underestimated the speed of her team and what she can get out of it."
He believed he was far ahead of her, but then saw her headlamp near the village of Golovin.
Zirkle remained optimistic, telling the website: "I know I have a lot fans rooting for me. Believe me, I am trying."
The last woman to win the race was four-time champion Susan Butcher in 1990. Libby Riddles was the first female winner, taking the crown in 1985.
King won the Iditarod in 1993, 1996, 1998 and 2006. Rick Swenson, of Two Rivers, is the race's only five-time champion. If King wins, he'll also become the Iditarod's oldest champion. That record is held by Mitch Seavey, who was 53 when he won last year. Mitch Seavey was running in fifth place Monday.
The trail this year has been marked by poor conditions because of a lack of snow after a warm winter by Alaska standards.