From Kyle Hopkins in White Mountain/Nome and Beth Bragg in Anchorage.
8 PM TUESDAY UPDATE
Mitch Seavey has passed Safety and appears to be on his way to his second Iditarod championship.
That put the Sterling musher 18 miles from Nome (based on the race's GPS tracker).
Seavey mushed through Safety at 7:37 p.m. Tuesday. He could reach Front Street as early as 10:30 p.m.
Aliy Zirkle, who trailed Seavey by 13 minutes out of White Mountain on Tuesday afternoon, trails by about three miles, according to GPS data.
Seavey is the 2004 race champion and the father of defending champion Dallas Seavey, who last year held off Zirkle for his first championship.
2 PM TUESDAY UPDATE:
Their teams separated by 13 minutes, Mitch Seavey and Aliy Zirkle left White Mountain on Tuesday afternoon with clear skies overhead and history in front of them.
Nome is 67 miles away (according to the race's GPS tracker), and whoever gets there first wins the 41st Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Seavey, a 53-year-old from Sterling, would become the oldest champion in race history. He would surpass Jeff King, who was 50 when he won his last race in 2006 — and who will be the third musher out of White Mountain soon when his eight-hour layover there ends.
Zirkle, 43, would become the third woman to win the race and the first since 1990, when Susan Butcher won the last of her four championships. Coincidentally, Zirkle moved to Alaska from New Hampshire that same year.
Seavey, the 2004 champion who is hoping to make his family the first in history to win back-to-back Iditarods — son Dallas beat Zirkle by less than an hour last year — was the first to leave White Mountain.
“Tanner! Gee! Line up!” he commanded his team of 10 dogs before driving off at 1:11 p.m.
Zirkle made last-minute inspections before following 13 minutes later. She walked down her line of dogs, rubbing their faces and checking their collars.
Once Zirkle was on the sled runners, her lead dog looked back and howled. Zirkle answered with a howl. The rest of the team joined in to make it a rousing departure.
Zirkle hit the trail at 1:24 p.m. with 10 dogs in harness.
Zirkle’s team was faster than Seavey’s on the 46-mile run from Elim to White Mountain, a trip the two leaders made as Monday night turned to Tuesday morning.
She sliced 35 minutes off his lead, clocking a time of 6 hours, 59 seconds to Seavey’s 7:34.
Based on both mushers’ last few races, they should reach Nome in 10 to 11 hours. Barring the unexpected, a winner should reach Front Street sometime between 10:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m.
THREE MORE SCRATCHES
Robert Bundtzen, Rudy Demoski and Jason Mackey scratched Monday, bringing the number of mushers who are out of the race to nine. Sixty-six mushers started the Iditarod on Saturday, March 2.
Bundtzen, an Anchorage doctor and 12-time finisher, scratched in Shaktoolik with 15 dogs at 2:15 p.m.
Demoski, a veteran of the 1974 and 1975 races, was down to nine dogs when he scratched in Unalakleet at 10:20 a.m. He was trying to make it to Nome for the first time since the 1980 race.
Mackey, a two-time finisher from Wasilla, also scratched in Unalakleet. He had 12 dogs and told officials he was pulling out because he is sick.
9:45 AM TUESDAY UPDATE:
From Kyle Hopkins in White Mountain --
As Iditarod leaders Mitch Seavey and Aliy Zirkle began an eight-hour rest before their finishing duel launches later today, a third musher arrived announcing he’s still a threat too.
“I’m still going to win this thing,” said a deadpan Jeff King. The four-time champion checked into White Mountain at 6:52 a.m., placing him 88 minutes behind Zirkle and an hour and 41 minutes behind Seavey.
“I’ve made up more than an hour on those guys at several checkpoints. All (Aliy’s) got to do is stutter,” King said, eating a fast breakfast and holding court for reporters.
As for the scant 13-minute advantage Seavey holds on Zirkle, King said it’s far from meaningless. King won the 1993 Iditarod with just a seven-minute lead over DeeDee Jonrowe.
“You can get out of sight and the second team doesn’t have the advantage of drafting off you visually," he said.
Based on past times between White Mountain and Nome, it's looking like a late Tuesday or early Wednesday finish.
In White Mountain Tuesday morning, the demeanor of the two race leaders couldn’t be more different. Zirkle arrived buoyant and chatty, asked a photographer how he’s doing and warning she wouldn’t be able to stop talking about her dogs once she started.
Seavey assured the checkpoint crowd that his dogs are tired but have clearly been able to maintain the lead. “I wasn’t necessarily racing for White Mountain or anything. ... I don’t think it's all that critical other than it’s a head start for tomorrow.”
Frustrated by delays in parking his team and exhausted from a 7-hour, 34-minute trek from Elim, Seavey quickly grew impatient with what he considered foolish questions and shooed reporters away. Inside the checkpoint, Seavey pored over run times, telling a member of the Iditarod Insider crew that something had been frozen to the runner of his sled, slowing his progress. “While she undoubtedly outran me, it’s not as much as it looks like.”
The musher nodded off at the table. “I’ve got to go to bed. I was thinking Dallas might show up," he said of his son, the defending champ.
7 AM TUESDAY UPDATE:
From Kyle Hopkins in White Mountain --
Mitch Seavey arrived to the sound of clanging church bells in this Norton Sound village at 5:11 a.m. Tuesday, just 13 minutes ahead of Aliy Zirkle.
Iditarods don’t get any closer than this.
“Mitch is up for a race, aren’t ya?” Zirkle said to reporters -- and a nearby Seavey -- as she finished feeding her dogs and prepared for a mandatory eight-hour rest at the village checkpoint.
"You calling me out?” Seavey said, heating water a few yards away. He was going to get his sneakers out for the finish, he joked.
“Can I borrow your sneakers? My boots are still wet and nasty from the rain,” Zirkle replied.
Seavey will be allowed to leave White Mountain at 1:11 p.m. and speed for the finish line 77 miles away.
Zirkle, a Two Rivers musher who finished second last year, made up time overnight, completing the run from Elim in 6 hours and 59 minutes. Seavey, of Sterling, the 2004 champion, took 7 hours and 34 minutes.
“Being here first isn’t any guarantee," Seavey said. “I knew she was coming. I saw her light after I left Elim. And when we got to the mountains. Typically my team does well in the mountains and I didn’t see her anymore until we got here on Golovin Bay, and I saw her light.”
Zirkle said she would have to “run my tush off” to catch up. The sooner the better, she said.
“The first section of this trail here, I think I can be faster on hills than Mitch. So I think I’ll be faster on that section. But on the Flats, which is 40 miles after that, right into Nome, I can see where he might be a little faster into there.”
“I’m going to have to catch him early and get out ahead,” she said.
MONDAY NIGHT STORY:
From Kyle Hopkins in White Mountain and Beth Bragg in Anchorage --
If Mitch Seavey wins his second Iditarod championship on Tuesday, it could be for the move he didn't make.
Seavey, the 2004 champion from Sterling, was the first musher to leave Elim on Monday night, almost one hour ahead of his nearest competitor with the finish line in Nome just 110 miles away.
Seavey appears to have survived big gambles by a pair of four-time champions -- Martin Buser's opening-day gambit that put him in command for the first half of the race, and Jeff King's Monday morning maneuver that put him in the lead for a few hours.
King chose to bypass the Koyuk checkpoint, opting to make the 84-mile run from Shaktoolik to Elim in one long stretch. Everyone else in the top 10 spent time resting in Koyuk.
The decision put the Denali Park musher about 31/2 hours ahead of Seavey, who beat King to Koyuk 34 minutes and settled in for nearly a four-hour break.
"He made a smart move if he can do it," said Two Rivers musher Aliy Zirkle, last year's runner-up.
King stopped eight miles out of Koyuk, giving Seavey an opening that could decide the 41st Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Seavey passed King and reached Elim at 6:36 p.m., nearly two hours ahead of anyone else.
During a 13-minute span beginning at 8:32 p.m., three mushers joined: King at 8:32 p.m., Zirkle at 8:42 p.m. and Ray Redington Jr. of Willow at 8:45 p.m. Nome's Aaron Burmeister got there at 9:42 p.m.
Even once he had company, Seavey didn't rush his return to the trail. He left at 9:37 p.m. with a team of 10 huskies. King and Zirkle followed less than an hour later at 10:25 p.m.
Everyone will get a nice long rest once they reach White Mountain, the next checkpoint where everyone must take an eight-hour layover before the final push to Nome.
As he camped with his team on the trail, his lead dwindling with every minute, King told Iditarod Insider he debated whether or not to stop in Koyuk, which is about 150 miles away from the Nome finish line.
"I was going back and forth with, 'No way, I'm gonna spend four hours in Koyuk and get a nap,' and then thinking, 'No, they're moving good, I think they'd go right through. So I went back and forth.
"I was getting in there just before sunup, and that's a time the dogs are generally kinda lively and energized. Anyway, I thought if I could bust out a run to Elim and be sitting over there, ideally I'd like to be able to see when the competition is coming. If a guy in the lead could be so lucky as to be far enough up that you have reports of when people left behind you, you can stay out of sight, 'cause that's what we're trying to do if at all possible."
Instead, it was Seavey who was sitting in Elim, able to see when the competition was coming.
Earlier on Monday, the race appeared to be headed toward a Seavey-King fight to the finish.
"I hope it's a race between them, and I hope my dad wins," defending champion Dallas Seavey, Mitch's son, said in Koyuk.
"It's really a duel between those two," Burmeister said in Koyuk, where he arrived in fifth place.
Burmeister, who placed fourth last year and had high hopes to vie for victory this year, said he's no longer in contention for the win. Weakened by diarrhea that hit in Grayling, the dogs have less energy and need more recovery time than usual.
"I don't have the strength in the dogs right now to be within striking distance," he said. "Anything can happen, but short of another 24-hour layover, I don't think I can bring 'em back."
Zirkle said she left Shaktoolik thinking she would make the same move King did -- race through Koyuk and straight through to Elim.
"At the beginning of that run there I had option of trying to go through here," Zirkle said in Koyuk. "In hour four or five of that run, that was no longer an option. It wasn't that (the dogs) looked bad, it was just they did not look like a team I could do that with.
Zirkle said the six-hour run from Shaktoolik across the frozen Bering Sea wasn't just a chore for her dogs, it was a bit of a bore.
"Running on the ocean it's, quote, easy but it's mentally hard just because it's monotonous and there's no obstacles and there's no entertainment," she said. "It's like you and I running on a treadmill for six hours."
Her team parked behind Redington's at the base of a cemetery hill where snow-covered plastic flowers hung from crosses, Zirkle tried to coax her dogs to eat.
Boondocks, Zirkle's 33-pound veteran, slept in the middle of the line, ignoring her food.
"She's not even kind of interested in eating right now," Zirkle said.
She stood over Willie Nelson, a longtime member of Zirkle and husband Allen Moore's top distance teams.
"Willie! Do you have to eat half your meal? Can't you eat the whole thing?" she said.
Redington pulled on his snowsuit, coughing.
"Just hobbling along," he said.
Redington, grandson of race founder Joe Redington Sr., has clocked some of the fastest run times in the last two days. He may need a gamble of his own if he wants to challenge for the first Iditarod victory for the mushing family that is as iconic as the race itself.
Race analyst Sebastian Schnuelle said time is running out for making moves.
"The chase pack would have really needed to make a statement (on Monday)," Schnuelle said. "The only chances they have something to do about it is Elim."
Kyle Hopkins reported from White Mountain and Koyuk and Beth Bragg reported from Anchorage.