NOME -- It came down to the issue of safety in Safety.
In an already treacherous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race that looked all but decided going into the final stretch, one last twist brought by the roaring coastal wind changed everything late Monday.
The 1,000-mile race across Alaska hinged on the checkpoint of Safety, just 22 miles from the finish here. Gusts reaching 45 mph and blinding snow across bare ice near that checkpoint snatched what would have been a record-tying fifth victory from Denali Park's Jeff King, 58, when he decided to scratch to preserve his dogs' well-being and his own.
King's surrender gave Two Rivers musher Aliy Zirkle a chance to win her first Iditarod after coming in runner-up two years in a row.
But Zirkle, 44, had a frostbitten hand and concerns about two of her dogs' ability to continue. She holed up in Safety for more than two hours. That allowed Willow's Dallas Seavey, 27, to catch up, pass her and maintain a slim lead all the way to Nome early Tuesday.
As the situation unfolded, confused race fans in Nome who were expecting King to mush down Front Street sometime after midnight watched the Iditarod's GPS tracking system at the city's race headquarters. Many talked about hoping Zirkle would win.
The result was the second-closest finish in race history -- Seavey and Zirkle were less than three minutes apart in the fastest Iditarod. Seavey's time of 8 days, 13 hours, 4 minutes, 19 seconds took more than five hours off the 2011 record set by Kotzebue's John Baker.
Seavey passed 12 mushers in the last 21/2 days to claim his second victory in three years.
"I ran my dog team, and I thought I was doing it for third place, but I ran my team and forgot about everybody else and did what I thought was best for these guys, to get them to the finish line as fast as they were capable of," Seavey said.
He did it with the help of Beatle, a lead dog he bought from King for $700 after King announced his retirement from the Iditarod following the 2010 race. King sat out in 2011, scratched in 2012 and came in third in 2013.
The weather that ended King's 2014 bid and threatened Seavey's was "hellacious," Seavey said. It blew his dogs and the sled over several times. Beatle and Seavey leaned into the wind, both the lead dog and musher at a 45-degree angle to the ground, Seavey said.
Seavey said he thought about camping in Safety but decided it would be good for his young dogs to show them they could make it all the way to Nome without stopping. If he had stopped, the race likely would have gone to Zirkle.
In Safety, the storm had knocked the power out and the situation was chaotic, Seavey said. He saw Zirkle's name on the check-in list, but not the woman herself, he said.
He also didn't see King or his name and figured King had signed a different list, not knowing his fellow competitor was out of the race.
Zirkle, however, saw King after he was rescued by snowmachiners.
"He looked at me and said, 'You're here? Your dogs are here?' I said yeah," Zirkle said. "He said, 'I thought that was non-navigable.' I said, 'I agree.' He said, 'Obviously you don't if you're here.' ''
Zirkle, who reached Safety more than two hours before Seavey, decided to stay. She talked to race marshal Mark Nordman on the phone and told him she was worried about the teams behind her. Zirkle also learned that Seavey was coming up behind her.
Others had already told Zirkle the wind was flipping over snowmachines. She parked the dogs and took a nap, she said.
"It was really, really bad out there, and it was the safest thing for me to do, to get my act together," Zirkle said. "So what's a gal to do? I had a cup of coffee, and then Dallas went through, and I had to follow him."
Seavey stayed just long enough to check in -- three minutes. Zirkle said she was ready to go and left 19 minutes after him, making up some time down the home stretch.
It was not enough.
Seavey said he saw Zirkle's headlamp behind him, but, thinking King and Zirkle were ahead of him, believed that a snowmachine was trailing his team. When the light bobbed in the darkness as it would on the head of a musher hustling to catch up by running, kicking or ski-poling, Seavey said he realized it was another racer.
But he still thought it was his father, 2013 champion Mitch Seavey, who was in fourth place, behind Dallas, out of White Mountain.
"I was thinking, 'How'd my dad catch up with me? It's a race for third now,' " Dallas Seavey said. "I was planning on congratulating Jeff (King) on winning the toughest Iditarod ever."
Seavey was one of six champions in the 42nd edition of The Last Great Race. The competitive field was coupled with sections of trail that veterans described as the most dangerous they'd ever seen. Ninteen of the 69 teams, including some of the sport's greatest mushers, had scratched by Tuesday, the 10th day of the race.
The Seaveys maintained a conservative schedule, but King, betting on the trail staying fast, was one of the mushers turning heads this year by building a big lead, pushing all the way to Ruby before taking his mandatory 24-hour break, where he won a five-course, gourmet meal and $3,500.
After letting Zirkle slip into first place by Unalakleet on the Norton Sound coast, King was ahead again by White Mountain, 77 miles from Nome, leading Zirkle by 57 minutes and Dallas Seavey by nearly three hours.
"I've been here before, (and when) things are going great they don't always stay great, but I feel really good about how I've managed the team, and we're in great position to have a good shot at this fifth win," King said at that checkpoint.
Disaster struck outside Safety when wind, reportedly gusting to 45 and 55 mph in the area, made it difficult to stay on course and forced King to scratch, Iditarod officials said. Race marshal Mark Nordman talked to King afterward.
"He was having a hard time navigating through the wind, and he got off to the side of the trail, kind of blown right off. He was concerned and wanted to take care of his dogs," Nordman said.
King stayed with the team, not moving, for 21/2 hours before he flagged down passing snowmachiners who helped get him and the team to Safety. Nordman described King's mood as somber.
"But still, in Jeff King fashion, very focused," Nordman said. "He felt he had made the right call. There was no back-and-forth type thing. He just felt it was best to do that."
"It was a pretty epic blow through there."
Seavey mushed the final miles with one dog in his sled basket and the minimum of six dogs pulling, while Zirkle's team was 10 dogs strong. She was closing the gap.
Along Nome's Front Street and at the Burled Arch that marks the finish line, fans chanted, "Aliy! Aliy! Aliy!"
But it was Seavey running down the street, holding onto his sled with one hand, emerging from the darkness and into the glaring electric lights, camera flashes popping. His leaders, Beatle and Reef, crossed the finish line at 4:04 a.m. Later, Seavey said he was surprised by how many people were cheering for what he thought was a third-place finish.
Seavey collapsed on the back of his sled, his head resting on the handlebar. Nordman shook his hand, then Seavey got a hug from his wife, Jen Seavey.
"Hey you," he said.
Seavey walked to his team, kneeling and petting the dogs.
"Dallas, did you think you could do this?" a cameraman asked.
"What exactly did I do?" Seavey said.
"You just won the Iditarod, 2014."
"Are you kidding me? I thought that was my dad behind me. Where's Jeff and Aliy?" Seavey asked.
"They're behind you."
"Huh," Seavey said. "Well, that's one heck of a run."
Later, the champ attributed his second victory to staying focused on his race plan and not getting distracted by the creative strategies of other mushers. Maybe not knowing what had become of Zirkle and King helped, Seavey said.
"It's kind of ironic, the whole way I've been talking about just running my team and ignoring everybody else," he said. "If you do good things by your team, good things will happen, you know? ... You do all the right things with the dog team and winning will happen."
Zirkle arrived at 4:06 a.m. to a roar from the crowd. She and Seavey hugged under the Burled Arch.
While Seavey accepted his winnings -- a new Dodge pickup and a check for $50,400 -- Zirkle mingled with her fans and signed autographs.
"I want to thank everybody for the support, more than anything," she said.
By CASEY GROVE