The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race leaders marched into their mandatory eight-hour pit stop at White Mountain this morning with defending champ Lance Mackey holding a surprising 57-minute lead.
Since the race hit the Bering Sea coast at the village of Unalakleet Sunday afternoon, the four-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and the 2007 Iditarod victor has been haunted by four-time Iditarod champ Jeff King from Denali Park.
King has passed Mackey only once to lead the race to Unalakaleet and grab the prize for being first to the Bering Sea.
For most of the past several hundred miles, the man from Denali Park has been content to follow Mackey from checkpoint to checkpoint to checkpoint along the Yukon River, over the Kaltag Portage and finally along the Bering Sea coast.
King let his team rest longer in virtually every checkpoint. He'd usually leave at least 30 minutes behind the defending champ from Fairbanks. But by the next checkpoint, the speedy King dogs would have cut into the lead.
However, on the 45-mile run from Elim to White Mountain on Monday night and Tuesday morning, the tables turned. During that run, the trail climbs up and over the 1,000-foot Kwiktalik Mountain summit that mushers call "Little McKinley."
King spotted Mackey 50 minutes leaving Elim. But this time, the four-time champ didn't gain it back. In fact, he fell another seven minutes behind. No matter what strategy King has in mind, trailing the defending champion by almost an hour into White Mountain cannot have been part of it.
An hour is a big and difficult chunk of time to make up over the last 70 miles of trail.
King now faces a Herculean challenge. But then King has been saying all along that Mackey has been able to get a little extra speed out of his notoriously gritty dogs when he needs it.
"(It) is a monumental challenge," King said. "Just the sheer environment we've traveled with taking care of these dogs. Then you put someone with Lance's expertise, demeanor and outstanding dog team in front of you? Yes, you can say it's challenging."
Mackey, meanwhile, claimed that his team was just hanging on.
"I'm just trying to keep them together and get to Nome," Mackey said in the coastal village of Koyuk on Monday. "I had a pretty frustrating ride the past couple of days.
"If I could get all 12 to work together at the same time, we would have good time. No more than six are working at the same time. It's not the same scenario as this time last year.
"I'm having to really talk to them now. As soon as we leave the checkpoints we go into a crawl. It doesn't matter what I do or say," he said.
"We could ding-dong around and end up 10th. We're not going to back off exactly, but I don't think this team has enough."
Then again, maybe it does -- unless King can dial up the speed he has given indications of holding in reserve.
"I took out of Shaktoolik (on the way to Koyuk), they were barking, loping the first five miles,'' King said Monday. "I've never gone out of Shaktoolik like ... this morning.
"We departed with pizazz, and it was fun. They calmed down and were steady Eddie across the ice" of Norton Bay.
On that flat stretch of trail, as in several places since the teams left the Yukon River at Kaltag, King's dogs were faster than Mackey's by up to 1 mph.
Only on that climb over Little McKinley did that change.
And now, between White Mountain and Nome stands another climb into the Topkok Hills. Then it's smooth and flat along the coast for the last run into Nome.
King is still hoping to win, but it remains to be seen if he can join Rick Swenson as a five-time Iditarod champ.
"I can count the times I've been in front of (Mackey) and it's only when he's camped,'' King said Monday. "But the only place it counts is at the finish line. I got a hunch when it happens (passing Mackey), it won't go over too big.''
If it happens.
Arrival in Nome is projected for between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. Wednesday.