WHITE MOUNTAIN -- Reigning Iditarod champ Lance Mackey -- in pursuit of a record four-straight victories -- widened his lead Monday by surging across the Norton Sound coast with the finish line less than a day away.
Mackey arrived in the village of Elim just after 1 p.m., about two hours ahead of rival Jeff King. But instead of stopping to rest, Mackey fed his dogs, gulped a cup of coffee and hit the trail. It's become classic Mackey -- little-to-no rest combined with marathon runs that leave competitors little chance of gaining ground on the battered, 39-year-old cancer survivor who has become a kind of people's champion with his shrewd swagger and plain talk.
With Mackey's team running toward Nome, King arrived in Elim and said he had no choice but to stop and rest. A four-time Iditarod winner himself, King said he doesn't expect to catch Mackey unless the Fairbanks musher makes a mistake.
"We'll see if he steps on his cape or somebody else finds a rocket launcher and takes him down," King said, eating lasagna from a plastic bag as his dogs slept curled on hay in the snow outside.
That hadn't happened by around 9 p.m., when Mackey pulled into the checkpoint at White Mountain, 77 miles from the finish line in Nome. All mushers are required to rest for eight hours here before making the push to the finish.
As of Monday night, it was looking like the winner would cross the finish line in the middle of the day today -- and it was also looking like the race was Mackey's to lose.
"Yes, my team needs to have a meltdown -- which is possible," Mackey said after arriving in White Mountain, where he fed his team. "We've been asking a lot of them here."
But Mackey's team wasn't showing signs of a meltdown -- "As you can tell, we still haven't bottomed out," he said -- and he pointed out that his dogs' heads were up and they were eating.
"As long as they're doing that, we're moving," he said.
'OH, THAT'S TOO FAR AWAY'
Though King was leading the Iditarod two-thirds into the race, he fell to third place on Monday as Hans Gatt -- winner of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest in February -- paused for just 16 minutes in Elim before chasing after Mackey.
As King ate and talked with reporters, village kids watching every bite from across the table, Gatt ducked into the baking-hot fire house that doubles as a checkpoint building.
"When did Lance come to town?" Gatt asked King.
"Oh, that's too far away," said Gatt, who split moments later with a team that one race checker said looked "great," with no sign of dogs with hurt wrists or shoulders.
Mackey and King -- who rested in the village 80 minutes -- each left a dog in Elim. Of the 16 dogs they started with, Mackey was racing with 11 and King with 12 when they left the checkpoint.
Mackey dropped Chucko, a fatigued male, said veterinarian Melissa Diederich. The dog slept under a pile of straw beneath a spruce tree as his boss mushed for White Mountain. King dropped Berkeley, another male who refused to pull, he said.
Elim is a Inupiat village of about 300 people. School kids lined the snowy streets that double as Iditarod trail Monday afternoon.
King, ice on his mustache, found his knuckles bloody after pulling his gloves off. Someone wrapped the hand in duct tape. A man in snowmachine goggles and a thick fur hood munched potato chips as he watched the action.
Mackey, who is often talkative at checkpoints, had moved fast and said little as he ladled a soup of hot water and kibble into frayed plastic bowls for the dogs. He signed someone's hat, shooed away a boy who stepped through his team and switched from two lead dogs to one before stepping behind his sled.
School children tried to touch him as he mushed down a village road, gave a thumbs up and turned right, on to the trail.
To checker Bill Gallea, a race volunteer from Montana, Mackey looked trail-weary, but focused and efficient. His dogs, including some who finished second in the Yukon Quest, appeared strong, he said.
"The sled was moving before he was on it," Gallea said.
'THEY CAME BACK'
King lost the lead to Mackey in the village of Kaltag on Saturday, when Mackey saw King was staying and made a flash decision to press forward, risking the chance he would sap his dogs' energy late in the race.
Better to make a move than second-guess yourself later, Mackey said farther down the trail. "I am totally willing to gamble any time any day. I'm not afraid to lay it on the line."
King said Mackey's dogs looked "reluctant" to him in the Shaktoolik checkpoint, halfway up the Norton Sound coast.
"I wondered, maybe that 140 mile run (from Nulato to Unalakleet) was a little much. But they came back," King said.
The mistakes Mackey could make now would be allowing the dogs to struggle in the heat -- sunny Elim felt tropical after subzero temperatures and brutal wind in Unalakleet on Sunday -- or from lack of rest.
"But not likely," King said. "He's pretty good at this."
The total purse in this year's race: $561,100, with $50,400 for first, $46,700 for second and $43,200 for third.