Just after it looked as if Mitch Seavey had turned in an epic, possibly game-changing run of nearly 100 miles on Thursday to seize control of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Aliy Zirkle showed up to inject some intrigue.
Zirkle snatched the lead from Seavey by zipping in and out of the Cripple checkpoint, sort of the way Seavey had charged through the Ophir checkpoint earlier in the day.
Zirkle left the halfway point of the 975-mile race at 6:32 p.m., with Seavey following at 6:55 p.m. She spent just six minutes at Cripple, while Seavey spent nearly five hours there.
Whether Zirkle will go the entire 70 miles to Ruby or if she'll stop to rest her dogs is anyone's guess.
What is certain is that the man chasing her has a team capable of making good time over a long haul.
Stopping only long enough to feed his dogs a few times, Seavey drove a swift team of 15 all the way from Takotna to Cripple to turn a narrow lead into what seemed like a bulging one until Zirkle made things interesting.
Seavey led Zirkle by only three minutes when he left Takotna early Wednesday morning after the frontrunners wrapped their 24-hour layovers at the checkpoint.
He arrived in Cripple, 96 miles away, with a lead of 1 hour, 42 minutes.
The 13-hour charge could go down as the deciding moment of the race -- but no less an expert than Seavey's son is cautioning that the race is far from over.
Dallas Seavey, 25, arrived in Cripple in second place, and although his dad gained 88 minutes on him Thursday, the son isn't conceding anything.
"As long as he's within a couple hours and we've got speed, I feel pretty comfortable," Dallas said after reaching Cripple.
"We're only halfway, so I'm not ready to start racing. I'm still building a monster. We'll let it out of the cage about halfway down the Yukon."
The Iditarod hits the Yukon River at Ruby, the checkpoint 70 miles from Cripple.
According to a post on his Facebook fan page, Mitch Seavey planned to camp for a couple of hours on the 73-mile trail between Ophir to Cripple, but those plans changed en route.
"We left the 24 (layover) as fed up as we could be, food-wise, so I ran them four hours just to make sure they would eat," Seavey told Iditarod Insider. "They scarfed up 10 pounds of beef, and then after that I stopped every two hours, on the clock."
Seavey said it seemed like the dogs began sensing when the two hours were up and expected the quick snack breaks. Twice, they went through 10 pounds of sheefish.
"They were still going and going and going, so I decided then we were not going to camp," Seavey said.
Others in the lead pack did stop to camp, giving Seavey a chance to pull ahead.
By not stopping, he arrived in Cripple at 2:16 p.m. and was able to rest his dogs through the warmth of the afternoon, almost two hours ahead of his nearest pursuer.
Seavey said the long haul from Takotna didn't stress his dogs, because they're used to long runs.
"You've gotta start with a dog team that's prepared for it," he told Iditarod Insider. "They've seen it before so it's not a shock to them. ... These guys have done that in other races and in training this year, so it's not really that unusual for them."
Almost all of the time Seavey gained on his competition came during the run from Ophir to Cripple.
He left Takotna at 1:13 a.m. Thursday, four minutes ahead of previous leader Aliy Zirkle and 14 minutes ahead of Dallas.
He widened his lead over Zirkle to nine minutes and his lead over Dallas to 21 minutes on the 23-mile run to Ophir.
Then he really started moving. Seavey covered the 73 miles from Ophir to Cripple in 10 hours, 24 minutes. Dallas did it in 11:45 and Baker in 11:53.
Seavey nearly caught Jim Lanier to rob the 71-year-old from Chugiak of the $3,000 in gold nuggets awarded to the first musher to reach the race's halfway point.
Lanier left Ophir nearly 41/2 hours ahead of Seavey but reached Cripple with only 21 minutes to spare to pocket the gold.
By BETH BRAGG
Anchorage Daily News