Update: Lance Mackey and Jeff King pulled into the Elim checkpoint just three minutes apart before 1 a.m. today. Mackey cut his rest short and left a dog behind before departing at 2:20 a.m. with King following at 3:10. Their times from Koyuk showed them running fairly even with Mackey taking just 13 minutes longer than King over the 48 miles.
KOYUK -- Icicles dangled from the mustache of defending Iditarod champion Lance Mackey on Monday afternoon as he pulled into this village on the coast of frozen Norton Sound with a four-time champion on his heels.
Dozens of villagers dressed in warm parkas, some holding signs that read "123 miles to Nome," cheered the Fairbanks musher when he arrived at 1:19 p.m. But their attention on last year's Iditarod and Yukon Quest champion shifted quickly when Jeff King pulled in eight minutes later.
The two had just traveled 45 miles from Shaktoolik along windswept ice, fighting a ground blizzard, below-zero wind chill and a nasty headwind. With visibility less than a mile, the two ran close together along the flattest terrain on the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail. Despite snow swirling around him, Mackey could turn his head and see King's team in the distance.
"It was kind of hard not to notice," Mackey said. "He was right there."
This cat-and-mouse game could last until tonight or Wednesday morning in Nome.
With storm clouds blotting out the sunshine, King parked his 16 dogs behind Mackey's 12. King shook out straw to bed his dogs, snacked them and pondered when Mackey would make his next move.
"He's been the wild man, so we'll let him wild man it up a little more," King said as he tossed a match in a clump of straw to heat his cooker. "He's very comfortable in the lead."
Frustrated with his slow time on the ice, Mackey said he would let King depart first and lead the way to the next checkpoint of Elim. But that was just the first of multiple bluffs told by each musher.
"They're fading away for sure," Mackey said about his dogs. "I'd love to (win the Iditarod), but the only thing I can do (to win) is take away more of their rest. I'm comfortable (with them) getting the rest they need and finishing second.
"At the moment, I know he's very capable of pulling away from me. But I'm stopping, and I'm not leaving until he leaves."
He said it, but he didn't do it. After resting 4 hours, 22 minutes, Mackey took off at 5:41 p.m. with 12 dogs. King left 16 minutes later, resting eight minutes longer than Mackey.
Earlier in the day, they arrived in Shaktoolik minutes apart before Mackey pulled out onto the Norton Sound ice at 5:57 a.m. King left 39 minutes later and eventually trimmed 31 minutes off Mackey's lead.
"He's clearly got the fastest dogs this round," Mackey said after his Norton Sound run. "I think he knows that."
Mackey said King's team had the capability of passing him on the Sound. But King said Mackey is keeping a good poker face, downplaying the strength of his dogs. King averaged 7 mph on the way here, while Mackey averaged 6.51 mph.
Mackey's dogs are losing their focus, he said, and the musher's feet have gone completely numb from the cold weather he faced two weeks ago in the Yukon Quest. He's trying to keep this team -- winners of three straight 1,000-mile races -- together until Nome.
But he's been saying that since Ruby, the first checkpoint on the Yukon River, where some dogs had diarrhea and others had poor enthusiasm. They were also running without Hobo, one of Mackey's best leaders, who was dropped in Rohn.
So how could Mackey still lead out of Koyuk?
"Fluke," Mackey said. "I think he's playing with me. In fact, I know he is. He knows he's faster. He purposely left Shaktoolik behind me to give me enough time to set tracks all the way here. He ain't dumb. I'd do the same thing if I had the opportunity."
King claimed that wasn't true. Whenever he got within a mile or less of Mackey, the 37-year-old cancer survivor asked his dogs to run faster.
"I'm deliberately not trying too hard to catch him," King said. "(But) when I got close to him, I thought I could pass him. He clearly shifted it into another gear. I don't know how he did it. In 15 minutes he gained what looked like a mile on me. He didn't like the idea of me passing him."
"That's bull----," said Mackey, who said his dogs are stuck in four-low gear.
King said later that unless he's ready to pass Mackey, he doesn't want to get too close. All that does is encourage King's dogs to chase Mackey's team, and he doesn't want that to happen.
"Don't tell him that," King told reporters, who didn't know whether he was being sarcastic.
When will you take the lead for good, someone asked King.
"I have no idea," he said. "It's not like I could at will. (Mackey) flat tore it on another gear. If he keeps doing that I won't."
But if King does pass beneath Nome's burled arch first, he would tie Two Rivers' Rick Swenson for the most Iditarod victories with five. Swenson has held the title of "Iditarod's winningest musher" since 1991.
On his way to this village, Mackey's thoughts weren't focused totally on the Iditarod. In two weeks, he's scheduled to compete against King in the All-Alaska Sweepstakes, a 408-mile race from Nome to Candle and back. The winner takes home $100,000.
"We might have a pattern going on -- Jeff wins (2006 Iditarod), I win (2007 Iditarod), Jeff wins (2008?), I win (Sweepstakes)," Mackey said. "We meet again in two weeks.
"So if he wins this one, it'll be my turn."
Despite all that was said Monday, neither Mackey nor King was backing down.
"I'll do best on good trail, if there's any out there," King said. "I'm guessing the beach. One way or another it's bound to be exciting."
Find Daily News sports reporter Kevin Klott at adn.com/sports/kklott or 257-4335.
Keep a pot of coffee on; it could be a late finish
Planning to watch the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race winner cross the finish line on Front Street?
Expect to stay up late tonight. Early Wednesday morning is a good bet for when Jeff King or Lance Mackey will celebrate beneath the burled arch of Front Street.
In his victory last year, Mackey left the Koyuk checkpoint, about 120 miles from Nome, at 12:13 p.m. Monday. This year, he's about 5 1/2 hours behind that pace, having left at 5:41 p.m.
He finished last year at 8:08 p.m. Tuesday. Adding 5 1/2 hours puts the winner in Nome between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. Wednesday.
One proviso: This year's race is much closer, so the winner may go faster than Mackey did last year.