UNALAKLEET -- Aliy Zirkle displayed her hands.
Blisters covered one palm. Too much ski-poling, she said. On the left she had written the time she arrived here on the Bering Sea coast, a reminder that in just a few hours it was time to return to the trail.
"My wheels haven't fallen off," Zirkle said. "But it's not a perfect ride."
With a chase pack of evenly matched racers battling for position in these final hours of the race, anything short of perfection might not be good enough. Consider the top contenders now struggling to keep pace with race leaders Mitch Seavey, who led the way into Shaktoolik on Sunday night, and Aaron Burmeister.
Zirkle, a pre-race favorite because her dogs won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest in February, appeared in Unalakleet trailing Seavey by 31/2 hours.
Martin Buser, the frontrunner for much of the race, is officially fizzling after his slingshot start. He arrived nearly nine hours after Seavey, his race done in by sloppy, stormy trail on the Yukon and dogs that are either sick, burned out or both.
Defending champ Dallas Seavey has ruled himself out of a second straight title. Three of the best dogs from his championship team were injured just before the race or on the first day of the Iditarod, he said. Like four-time champion Lance Mackey, Seavey has resorted to using the race as a cross-state training run.
"We've had to run at the pace of the young (replacement) dogs, rather than the pace of the racing team," he said.
'coast is sort of ominous'
Unalakleet is where the race meets the wind-blasted Norton Sound coast and makes a hard right turn to the north. Sheets of house-sized ice split from the shore, floating into the sea on the edge of town and bacon-flavored air fills the checkpoint building, an old general store.
The region is famous for storms. Race volunteers remind mushers to keep their heavy-duty gear within easy reach.
"The coast is sort of ominous for those of us who don't live up here," said Mitch Seavey, who won $2,500 in gold nuggets for arriving first.
Burmeister, a Nome resident, raced this same route last month and welcomed the wind. Cools the dogs off, he said. Weather troubles plagued along the 85-mile trail from the Yukon River to Unalakleet.
"Five miles out of Kaltag. It was whiteout," Burmeister said. "I couldn't even see past the leaders."
Burmeister broke trail until about 18 miles from the coast, he said. He suspects Seavey didn't know he was so close until a film crew shooting footage of Burmeister's approach illuminated the trail.
"That's where I stopped to work on a couple of dogs. While I was in there pulling booties and snacking them again, that's where Mitch came up on me," Burmeister said.
The gold nuggets, about 1.5 ounces in a canister the size of a film roll, is the first checkpoint award of Seavey's 18 Iditarod finishes. The trail here was soft, he allowed, but not so bad compared to the sled-swallowing overflow mushers encountered on the Yukon.
"There's not a lot of race left, and if you're here (first) you have a little padding," he said. "I wish I had a little more speed left, but we'll get some back here if I take care of them right."
Seavey won the race in 2004. The younger Seavey thinks his dad might be about to do it again.
"All year that's been a strong team. It's been fun to see it really mature and come together for my dad at the end of this race," Dallas said.
pushing too hard?
Recent Iditarods have been won by patience. Dallas won last year by conserving energy for a monster finish. Kotzebue musher John Baker, who was in 13th place Sunday, broke the speed record in 2011 with a steady, consistent 1,000-mile march.
Former Yukon Quest winner Sebastian Schnuelle, who has been traveling the trail by snowmachine, wondered aloud if Burmeister and Seavey pushed too hard to the coast, wearing themselves out for the final 236 miles.
It was another former champion, third-place Jeff King, who posted the fastest time to the checkpoint. King took 11 hours, 31 minutes, gaining more than an hour on Seavey and Burmeister.
Zirkle took about 181/2 hours to cover the same distance, including a rest that she had hoped would propel her up the coast but was negated by stormy weather, she said.
'patience of a flea'
In Unalakleet, King said that people who bet on him to win ought to double down. This is the best he's felt about an Iditarod since 2006, he said.
"I was very patient, for me," King said. "I have the patience of a flea and it's really hard for me to hold back. But what satisfaction, seeing (the dogs) this jazzed, this revved up."
"I've never been sorry that I went to slow at the beginning of a race. I have a hunch I won't be sorry again," he said.
Another top contender, Big Lake musher Jake Berkowitz, is sick and so are his dogs, he said. The huskies have been vomiting and, like several teams, suffering from diarrhea.
"I'm more worried about getting the dogs 100 percent than myself. I'm in no position to go pushing hard out of here," Berkowitz said.
A few hours later, Burmeister tossed snacks to his dogs, a cigarette hanging from his mouth. Light snow had collected on the sleeping huskies all morning. Now the rising wind whipped it away and the musher pulled booties on their feet.
With four dogs still shoeless, Burmeister looked up to see Seavey's team already vanishing down the trail.
Email Kyle Hopkins at email@example.com.
By KYLE HOPKINS