NOME -- Dallas Seavey came from behind to capture his second Iditarod championship in three years early Tuesday morning, mushing his team of seven dogs through a windstorm that knocked Jeff King out of the race and prompted Aliy Zirkle to hole up in Safety for more than two hours.
Seavey, 26, jogged beside his sled down Nome's Front Street to help his dogs. At one point, he glanced over his shoulder, thinking his dad, defending champion Mitch Seavey, was gaining on him.
After crossing the finish line in record time at 4:04 a.m., Seavey sat on the back of his sled and leaned his head on his handlebar, exhausted.
"Dallas, did you think you could do this?" an Iditarod Insider videographer asked.
"What exactly did I do?"
"You just won the Iditarod, 2014."
"Are you kidding me? I thought that was my dad behind me. Where's Jeff and Aliy?"
King was out of the race, having scratched shortly before midnight when howling winds blew his sled off the trail. He told race officials he spent 2.5 hours with the dogs, stalled a few miles outside Safety, before waving down a snowmachiner for help.
Zirkle decided to stay in Safety after snowmachiners told her the wind had flipped their sleds and was getting worse. "What's a gal to do?" she said.
Seavey beat Zirkle by less than three minutes, ending a frenzied night of racing that saw the lead go from King to Zirkle to Seavey in less than three hours.
It was the second-closest finish in the Iditarod's 42-year history. The only closer finish was Dick Mackey's one-second 1978 win over Rick Swenson.
Seavey and his team broke the Iditarod speed record, finishing the 1,000-mile race from Willow to Nome in 8 days, 13 hours, 4 minutes, 19 seconds. He shaved more than five hours off John Baker's 2011 record of 8 days, 18 hours, 46 minutes, 39 seconds.
Since Baker's victory, the Iditarod has belonged to the Seavey family. Dallas became the race's youngest winner in 2012, and Mitch became the race's oldest winner last year when he won his second title.
During that same period, second place has belonged to Zirkle, a 44-year-old Two Rivers musher and the fan favorite.
Zirkle, driving a team of 10 dogs, finished with a huge smile on her face and waved to fans who were chanting her name even as Seavey approached the finish line.
"I know all the women are going for Aliy," Seavey said at a post-race press conference, "and probably half the men."
Until Monday when coastal winds turned nasty, weather hadn't been a factor in the race. Then it became all about the weather, at least for the leaders.
Seavey essentially won by rushing through Safety, which he said was without power and chaotic because of the storm. He spent three minutes there, long enough to check in. He arrived at 1:13 a.m. Tuesday and was gone by 1:16 a.m.
Zirkle reached Safety at 10:57 p.m. Monday and decided to settle in after hearing trail reports from snowmachiners.
"It was really, really bad out there, and it was the safest thing for me to do, to get my act together," she said.
Seavey said he saw Zirkle's name on the check-in board in Safety but didn't see King's. He figured King signed another sheet of paper.
Zirkle didn't know where King was either. "I never saw Jeff," she said. "I got to Safety and he was missing."
King eventually arrived on a snowmachine, his race over.
"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.' ''
Wind and visibility conspired against the leaders on their final night on the trail.
"I was worried about Dallas. I was worried about everybody behind me," Zirkle said.
When Seavey blasted through Safety, Zirkle gave chase. She left 19 minutes after Seavey did, and made up some -- but not enough -- time in the final 22 miles.
At White Mountain, 77 miles from Nome, King led Zirkle by 57 minutes and Seavey by nearly three hours. All mushers must take an eight-hour break in White Mountain, and as his dogs rested, the 58-year-old Denali Park musher sounded cautiously optimist about his chances of scoring a record-tying fifth victory.
"I'm not gonna try figuring out what color truck I want before I get to Nome or anything," King said, referring to the new truck awarded to the Iditarod winner, along with the prize money. "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."
Things went sideways amid a roaring wind that limited visibility. The National Weather Service reported areas of blowing snow Monday night, with winds 15 to 25 mph. Winds gusted up to 40 mph east of the city.
"King indicated to race officials that the wind is severe in the area and he was having difficulty navigating the trail," Iditarod officials said in a news release announcing King's scratch.
"He stayed with his team for approximately two and one half hours before asking a snowmachiner to help him by taking him to the Safety checkpoint to contact race officials. Jeff and others are moving the team to the Safety checkpoint for the night," the statement said.
King's troubles put Zirkle in control, at least temporarily. She had led the race on and off, collecting awards for being the first musher to Unalakleet and McGrath, although she knew King's 57-minute lead at White Mountain would be difficult to close without something unexpected happening.
"I'm going to try to catch him," she said in White Mountain. "The team looks good."
Seavey had been surging since Kaltag, about 630 miles into the race. He trailed the leaders by 10 hours at that checkpoint.
By the weekend he was posting some of the fastest run times of the race, his team becoming more powerful as the race wore on. Seavey likes to call the come-from-behind approach, which carried him to victory in 2012, "building a monster." The wind that cost King his race didn't seem to slow Seavey's team.
"My team is not built for top-end speed," he said in Kaltag. "My team is built for endurance and tough runs."
In Nome, he said that by the time the race reached White Mountain, "winning was not even in the back of my mind."
"This year we really were focused on running our team to the best of their abilities," he said. At some point, he said, he stopped comparing his times to those of others.
"I stopped and said, 'Wait, that doesn't matter,' '' he said. "In my mind, the perfect race is when you finish the race with zero in the tank."
Howling wind ended Kelly Maixner's race earlier Monday on frozen Golovin Bay. Race officials said he was 1.5 miles away from Golovin when he stopped, his dogs unable to travel across the ice against strong crosswinds. Officials said Maixner would spend the night in Golovin and be taken to Nome when visibility improves and weather permits.
The Weather Service issued a weather advisory for the Norton Sound region through Tuesday afternoon, warning of high winds, blowing snow and fog.
This isn't the first time late-race drama, fueled by paralyzing coastal weather, helped decide an Iditarod.
Rick Swenson grabbed his record-setting fifth victory in 1991 by driving his team through a blizzard that caused other mushers, including leader Susan Butcher, to retreat.
Butcher left White Mountain with a commanding 67-minute lead that year, and her pursuers all but conceded defeat. The leaders left White Mountain and mushed into a storm that turned back everyone but Swenson. It took him 23 hours to cover the 77 miles to Nome.
That's the last time the musher who was first to reach White Mountain did not go on to win the race.
This is the second time in three years that King, who finished third in last year's race, has scratched. In 2012, King was about 10 miles outside Unalakleet when his dogs stopped pulling.
Casey Grove reported from Nome, and Beth Bragg and Kyle Hopkins reported from Anchorage.
Telecommunications services for ADN Iditarod coverage provided by GCI.
By CASEY GROVE, BETH BRAGG and KYLE HOPKINS
Anchorage Daily News / adn.com
Alaska Dispatch Publishing