RUBY -- Four-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion Jeff King pulled in here Friday acting like he was in charge of the 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome.
From his comments and behavior, it was impossible to tell his team was 2 1/2 hours behind defending champion Lance Mackey as the mushers reached the south bank of the fabled Yukon River.
King rode a sled behind 16 enthusiastic-looking dogs, and when he passed Mackey on the way to a parking spot, he asked one question:
The comment was a reference to Mackey's bold statement in Unalakleet last year that "King should be worried."
As Iditarod fans know, Mackey went on to win the 2006 Iditarod -- something few thought possible after a victory in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest only weeks before. Mackey wowed everyone with the back-to-back wins, and now he's looking to do it again.
He's already taken one dog team from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon, successfully defending his Quest title, and he arrived here around dawn to seize the lead in the Iditarod.
But this race is far from over.
Ruby is barely past halfway, and every musher is worried about what toll unusually warm weather is taking on the dogs.
"Hot, like Hawaii,'' said Norwegian Kjetil Backen, the third musher to Ruby.
"Some of those hills without breeze was like a sauna,'' added former champ Mitch Seavey from Sterling, the fourth racer into town.
Interior Alaska temperatures, often below zero in early March, have been 30 to 40 degrees during the day. By Nome, pacing may end up being more critical than racing.
The cool of the night, all agree, is the time to be on the trail, and Mackey took advantage of that to leave from a rest stop short of the halfway checkpoint of Cripple, blow through the checkpoint, and push on to the Yukon in one marathon, 14-hour, nighttime run that didn't end until daybreak Thursday.
"I'm just taking advantage of the dark, cool and nice trail that's firmed up. It shows with the times,'' he said. "We still have some issues, but the enthusiasm is there.''
"He's supernatural,'' King said later. "(But) all mortals must slow down. If he wasn't here before me, I would think I was setting an Iditarod record."
As it was, King was happy with a team running close to 1 mph faster than Mackey's on the 80-mile run here from Cripple. That might not seem like much, but given the speeds at which these teams travel, it's about a 10 percent difference, and a 10 percent difference between athletes in any professional sport is huge.
The question is whether King can maintain the speed given the sometimes soft trail and wet snow that was starting to fall. He didn't seem worried.
"They've got lots of pep," King said. "Tired but very healthy. I've got some advantages (over Mackey), but we'll see what they do."
Mackey didn't appear overly concerned. He laughed at King's question about being worried.
"That's funny s---,'' he said.
Then he walked up to King and said, "I can't worry, Jeff."
"Pretty ballsy to say you're not worried at all,'' King said.
As the first musher to the Yukon, Mackey had already enjoyed a gourmet meal and collected $5,000 in cash. A chef from the Millenium Alaskan Hotel in Anchorage is flown in to serve up six courses on real china complete with the good silver. Mackey dined on chicken and wild mushroom terrene next to a stack of 5,000, crisp $1 bills.
"Lance, you're the first person since we've upped our prize to $5,000,'' said Brooke McGrath, food and beverage director for the Millennium.
"That's wonderful," Mackey said. "(But) I wish that wasn't public so my wife knew. ... I'm still unsure what to do with this money.''
There was no payday for King, but he still seemed almost giddy about how his race was going.
After he snacked his team, he grabbed a sled, hopped on the tailgate of a pickup puttering down one of the few streets, and rode up to where the bales of dog straw were located.
He grabbed a bale, tossed it on the plastic sled and then jumped on for a downhill cruise back to his team.
King was also laughing about the behavior of a couple of his younger dogs who can't seem to get enough.
They are, he said, " frantic ... to go faster, just be crazy, which is against all the rules right now. They have barked departing every checkpoint.
"I think that turns them on. Who knows what turns them on.
"They also bark if someone backs off their tug(line) and starts to poop. That's a no-no in their book. Everyone is encouraged to get their business done and get back to work.
"They won't stop barking at the dog until he's done.''
King's good spirits suggest he thinks he's in the hunt for win No. 5.
Mackey has expressed some concerns about his team, but warned: "Don't count me out just yet.''
Backen thinks he has a shot, too. But Seavey didn't seem so sure.
When a local walked up to him and asked, "Jeff?'' he answered "Mitch.''
"You're doing pretty good, buddy," the man said.
"What position am I in?" Seavey asked.
"Fourth," came the reply.
"So I'm not doing pretty good,'' Seavey said.
But the way this Iditarod has been going, that could change.
Since the race began from Willow, there have been several different teams in the lead. Mackey was the first to leave town Friday, but more jockeying may be yet to come.