Three-time defending Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion Lance Mackey and his chief rival, Jeff King, played a mushing version of catch-me-if-you-can up the Norton Sound coastline Sunday with a huge prize awaiting the winner.
For Mackey, victory would be an Iditarod-record fourth straight.
For King, victory would allow the 54-year-old to join Rick Swenson as race's winningest musher with five titles and extend his own record as the oldest champion.
An hour separated them Sunday night.
As the sun set, Mackey headed out of Shaktoolik for a 50-mile nighttime run across the sea ice of Norton Bay to the next checkpoint, at Koyuk. King left Shaktoolik exactly an hour later, at 8 p.m. Two others, Hans Gatt and Hugh Neff, had arrived in Shaktoolik but hadn't yet left as of 9 p.m.
A race that King seemed to control near the halfway point, blew apart for the Denali Park musher on Saturday when Mackey raced past a resting King in Kaltag, not taking an extended break until he reached Unalakleet, the biggest town on the trail since the Willow start.
"Not only was I blowing through (Kaltag), I wasn't going to stop until I got here," Mackey said as he arrived in Unalakleet around 3:30 a.m. Sunday. "If I've got (King) flustered a little bit, it's going to take away from his performance -- I hope. If I got in his head, it was just to irritate him a little bit.
"And Jeff's not the kind of person you irritate. It only makes him stronger."
But Mackey's three-hour advantage was cut to less than an hour when King cut his rest at Unalakleet, leaving just 28 minutes behind the Fairbanks musher.
"All I got to do is cut my rest and if my dogs can do it, I have the fastest team," King said.
But Mackey told reporters he'd noticed King's speed waning, and even though King rested about four hours farther back in Kaltag, he made the 90-mile run to Unalakleet only a minute faster than Mackey.
"It was a really crummy trail," he said. "All the way to Tripod (a resting spot) was very punchy, soft trail. I'm really glad I went over it with a team that had four hours rest rather than one that had just run four hours."
King said he felt as good as he ever has in the Iditarod, and was glad the race was coming down to another duel against Mackey, just like two years ago.
"There's not too many guys I'd rather be racing against."
King said he wasn't surprised Mackey blasted through Kaltag -- only that he could convince his dogs to keep moving to Unalakleet.
"I'm still really glad my dogs ate in Kaltag and I was able to use the water and facilities. I know my dogs ate more across there than Lance's did," King said, eating a pastry at a checkpoint cafeteria table as Mackey rested.
"But ... he really knows how to feed them. He knows what they can do. If they didn't need to be fed or could get away without it, then great. But if they didn't, I mean, mine couldn't have and if the same is true of his, they might have lost something there. I can only hope."
Two factors were shaping up as crucial as the Iditarod enters its home stretch.
• Did Mackey run the speed out of his team too early?
• Will weather play a role?
Mackey arrived in Unalakleet just after 3:30 a.m. A throng of fans, media and volunteers -- gloved hands at their sides, shuffling and watching the horizon in their hoods and parkas like a flock of penguins -- cheered his arrival.
The checkpoint is a spartan, warehouse-like building filled with cafeteria tables, volunteers and little else. Mackey sat on a folding chair and peeled away his socks, holding his right foot in his hand.
"I'm beat up," he said. "I have been. I've been hiding it well though. But I'm getting wimpier. ... I'm glad it's about over."
Mackey lavished praise on his dozen dogs.
"I'm ecstatic with them," he said. "I've got quite a few 2-year-olds in there that are really shining.
"They're eating good, everybody's pulling. I have no split feet, no shoulders (that are sore), no nothing. I've got 12 solid dogs."
Praise from their boss is fine, but that won't lessen the dogs' load over the final 220 miles of mushing. Expect Mackey to continue the style of long runs and short stops that have helped him dominate the race.
"I'm not setting any kind of blistering speed going down the trail. The only reason I'm here as fast as I am is I haven't been stopping much.
"(His dogs) have been known to do long runs with minimal rest, so it shouldn't be any huge surprise to anybody," Mackey said in Unalakleet after making a 130-mile march from Nulato to Kaltag to Unalakleet without a long stop.
"It's not normal, it's definitely not normal. It might be getting normal for me to do oddball stuff, but it's not normal."
There is some point, however, where a musher simply asks his dogs for too much work and affords too little rest. Plenty of Iditarod dogs, including some pulling championship mushers, have decided enough is enough and sat down, unwilling to proceed. That's never happened to Mackey during an Iditarod.
But he recognizes it may take a ploy to prevail this year.
"I don't honestly think that my team is the strongest in it, so I've got to think a little bit different and try and throw (King) off his game plan," Mackey said.
As far as weather, mushers should expect more of the same -- with nighttime lows dipping to minus 20. More ominous, the National Weather Service warns of winds reaching 20 mph in some spots along eastern Norton Sound, driving the wind chill to minus 35.
Those winds will "be hitting the mushers right on the nose," according to Iditarod commentator and former musher Bruce Lee.
"This is where they cross the sea ice," he said of the 50-mile run from Shaktoolik to Koyuk. "It's a big wide-open country out there. Not a lot to look at and gauge speed."
Kyle Hopkins reported from Unalakleet and Mike Campbell from Anchorage.