As the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race entered its final 100 miles, the gritty, determined defending champion Lance Mackey had somehow forged a 50-minute lead over four-time winner Jeff King.
Could he hold it?
Throughout the second half of the 1,100-mile race from Willow to Nome, Mackey has tried to keep a charging King at bay. Even though his trail time between checkpoints has been slower, Mackey preserved his edge by cutting his rest. If that strategy holds up another 18 hours, he will have back-to-back victories in the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod for the second straight year.
Mackey, of Fairbanks, pulled out of the Elim checkpoint at 2:20 this morning, bound for Golovin, 28 miles away. King, of Denali Park, left the same checkpoint at 3:10 a.m., with all 16 of his dogs still in harness.
Once there, the mushers have just 77 miles to go before the Nome finish line. They'll have to stop in White Mountain for a mandatory eight-hour rest before beginning the stretch run.
"It's a two-way race. Right now it looks like either Jeff or Lance, but a lot of things can happen," Dale Myers, a longtime Iditarod volunteer, told The Associated Press. Myers was hanging Iditarod sponsor banners along the snowpacked chute leading to the finish line.
"I keep going back and forth between Jeff and Lance," Myers said.
A victory for King would tie him with Rick Swenson of Two Rivers, the Iditarod's only five-time winner. Swenson was in 10th place out of Koyuk this morning.
But Mackey also would make history with a win. Last year he became the first musher to record back-to-back wins in the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod. Mackey also won his fourth consecutive Quest last month.
At Iditarod central, in Nome's small convention center, volunteers from across the nation staffed tables heaped with souvenirs. Others hung welcome flags with mushers' names.
Outside, more volunteers were busy sorting bales of straw and bags of dog food forwarded by mushers for their teams. There were chains to line up in tight rows, where dog teams will be rigged up and tended to after mushers cross the finish line.
Kathleen Zwolak, a longtime volunteer from Wadsworth, Ill., was coordinating dog lot preparations. She also had other dog-care duties earlier in the race.
"Between Lance and Jeff, I don't have clue," she said. "I know both are awesome mushers and both have their own strategies. It's anybody's guess."
Eleven mushers have scratched since the start of the race, and one has been withdrawn. A field of 83 mushers remains on the trail.