WHITE MOUNTAIN - With his dirty, red, arctic snowsuit stripped off and packed away in his sled, defending Iditarod champion Lance Mackey and his team off 11 Alaska huskies set off to run for Nome at 4:53 p.m.
Clinging to 57-minute lead on four-time champion Jeff King with 77 miles left to go, Mackey observed that "in a time of need I'm a marathoner. But in all reality, I'm a little lazy. I'm going to save every bit of extra energy I can in case I need it on Front Street."
On Front Street waits the famous burled arch under which the winner of the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race will pass sometime early Wednesday morning.
A half hour before leaving after a mandatory, eight-hour stop here, Mackey wolfed down a cheese sandwich on white bread with lots of ketchup and mayonnaise, then guzzled a blue Powerade. Not exactly a meal fit for someone set to chase a dog sled for more than twice the distance of a marathon in hopes of $69,000 and the second, new Dodge Truck in as many years.
But it was more nourishing than the usual cup of coffee and chocolate chip cookie consumed by the hard-charging cancer survivor from Fairbanks.
As he readied his team to leave, Mackey looked at a Native woman holding a sign that read, "Go really fast Lance!"
With King's dogs hot on Mackey's heels, that has to be the plan.
"I gotta go as fast as possible," Mackey said. "I've got an hour jump start. I'm going to need every bit of that. Whatever happens happens. It's been a great race, and I've been part of it. I'm not giving in, I'm not backing down."
The Mackey family knows about surviving close finishes. Lance's dad, Dick, won the race's only photo finish in a contested sprint with five-time champ Rick Swenson down Front Street in Nome. Swenson got his sled across the finish line first, but Mackey was awarded the race by a dog's nose.
Whether this Iditarod comes down to a duel on the street really depends on what Mackey's team has left and what King can muster from dogs that have been among the fastest on the trail since the race left Willow a week ago Wednesday.
"If he catches me, he will have damn sure earned it," Mackey said.
King had been within minutes of Mackey until the Elim checkpoint, about 95 miles from Nome, when the defending champ sneaked out.
"(King) was still sleeping,'' Mackey said. "He's mad about it because honestly, there is no way I could outrun this team if I left at the exact same time,'' although Mackey's team did power up and over the 1,000-foot summit mushers know as Little McKinley.
"I had one of my better runs,'' Mackey said, "about 15 minutes faster run than him, which is a first. I think maybe (the dogs) know where they're at. They just picked it up for no apparent reason. They have some reserve left. So if he doesn't catch me I'm just going to ride on the runners. And if he does catch me, he'll have to push to do it."
King wasn't giving in.
"I wouldn't mind it if Lance stepped on his cape," he said. "It's been an awesome race for me.
"This may have been my best performance in the Iditarod. Everything but snoozing in Elim'' has worked out as planned.
King credited Mackey with luring him into the mistake in Elim by making as if he was going to take a two-hour break or longer there.
"He baited me right into it," King said. "I don't think it was an accident. I think that part is cool, classic. It's honorable. It did not involve deceit. But he's going to pay."
King took the mistake as his own. He said he thought there was time for a 45 minute nap after caring for his dogs. He thought wrong.
"(A) two-hour stinking break (by Mackey) after run after run after run does not seem excessive if that's the only difference between us,'' King said.
"He does seem to have a tougher dog team than the both of us. One of the reason I trailed him so doggegly. I didn't want to play his game, to out tough him."
King didn't. Now, if he is to win, he must out race the former time champion of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race looking to add to his Iditarod wins.
Mackey admitted he has dreamed about a duel on Front Street.
"I've had this vision of us both hitting Front Street racing together,'' he said. "I think that'd be pretty stressful. If we're on the avenue together, obviously there's only going to be one winner. Coming in second is what? A $10,000 difference and new truck? I'd hate to come on the avenue and come in second.
"I don't want that to happen."