Defending champ Lance Mackey held a nearly one-hour lead as Iditarod dog teams prepared to leave White Mountain today for a final push to the finish line in Nome, but the race remained too close to call.
Four-time champion Jeff King from Denali Park, who has been been behind a consistently faster team through the race, was within striking distance. His dogs, however, will have to make the run of their lifetimes if he is to beat Mackey to the end of the trail sometime early Wednesday, probably around 4 a.m.
White Mountain to Nome is a distance of about 75 miles, and coming off the race's mandatory eight-hour rest there, Mackey's dogs are expected to be somewhat rejuvenated. The team averaged 7 mph in the run from Elim up over the 1,000-foot summit that mushers call "Little McKinley" on the way into White Mountain.
If Mackey's team can hold that pace, King will have to get his dogs rolling at a speed of almost 8 mph to win.
As the race has moved up the Bering Sea coast, there has been no sign his team -- nor any other -- can do that.
Fresh Iditarod dogs can make better than 10 mph, but almost 1,000-miles into The Last Great Race, everyone is tired -- dogs, mushers and race officials.
Mackey lamented that fact Monday at Koyuk, a village on the shore of frozen Norton Bay. The trail coming in there crosses the sea ice from Shaktoolik straight and flat for miles. The mushers can see the village almost forever, and that makes the crossing seem even slower than it really is.
"As soon as we leave the checkpoints,'' Mackey said, "we go into a crawl. It doesn't matter what I do or say."
He did better than a crawl, but he wasn't setting any speed records either.
And he confessed to being worried about a key lead dog that helps set the pace for the team.
"Larry has some issues,'' Mackey said. "He's got an infected foot (because of) a split that wasn't controlled. He's irritated with me. He's got bombproof feet, and I screwed up."
Despite that, Larry appeared to be hanging in there, as was Mackey, who would really make a mark if he wins this Iditarod.
He did what everyone in the mushing world thought impossible last year when he won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon, in February and followed that up with his first Iditarod victory in March. This year, he went back to the Quest and successfully defended his title.
Now he stands on the verge of doing likewise in the Iditarod.
What's beyond impossible?
Behind him, mushers in a hard-fought battle for top-10 positions are scratching their heads and pondering that.
Except for the small gap opened by Mackey and King, they are caught in a battle of what may be the most competitive competition the race has ever witnessed along the Bering Sea coast.
Less than two hours separated teams three through nine this afternoon as they closed on White Mountain, where the leaders were resting. Former Quest champ Hans Gatt from Canada was leading the pack. Behind him were this year's Quest runner-up, a former Iditarod champ, a four-time Iditarod champ, last year's Iditarod runner-up, and the musher at the handlebar of the near legendary "Team Norway.''
Which of them ends up third is still a long way from decided.