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Zirkle overtakes King and leads Iditarod down homestretch

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 9, 2014

With last-minute lead changes and the promise of a record-breaking finish, welcome to the final hours and miles of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Four-time champion Jeff King is poised for a fifth title, but any mistakes could allow fan-favorite Aliy Zirkle to make a bid for the upset.

Update 11:05 p.m. Monday:

Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers is once again leading the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Zirkle arrived in Safety, the final checkpoint ahead of the race's Nome finish line, at 10:57 p.m.

King had led the race out of White Mountain but Zirkle passed him somewhere near the 936 mile marker, according to Iditarod Insider, which tracks mushers via GPS device.

Reports streamed in Monday night of strong winds and poor visibility along the Norton Sound coast.

Safety is 22 miles from Nome.

Update 4:15 p.m. Monday:

From Casey Grove in White Mountain and Kyle Hopkins in Anchorage --

Two Rivers musher Aliy Zirkle is back on the trail, chasing four-time champion Jeff King in an unlikely bid to overcome King's hefty 57-minute lead.

As she helped the dogs form a straight line, Zirkle held a husky with one hand and signed a girl's "Way to go Aliy!" poster with the other.

Zirkle often leads her team in a howl before leaving checkpoints. Not this time. "How are you doing? What do you say," she called to the dogs. "Ready! Hike."

Although Zirkle injured her leg on Sunday, possibly by pulling a hamstring, she showed no signs of pain as she jogged along the frozen Fish River behind the trotting dogs.

If King and Zirkle reach Nome at about the same pace as past winners, they will both shatter the Iditarod speed record by hours. (John Baker of Kotzebue holds that title, finishing in 8 days, 18 hours, 46 minutes and 39 seconds in 2011.)

That may be baffling for casual Iditarod fans who have spent the past week looking at pictures of mile after mile of snowless trail. Wouldn't the lack of snow slow down a dog sled race? But 2013 champion Mitch Seavey said it's not so hard to understand why teams are setting a historic pace to Nome.

The ground may be bare on parts of the trail, he said, but it's still frozen. The sled runners move more smoothly across the icy tundra than you might think, and huskies are able to get better traction than when running in soft powder.

The race winner is expected to arrive at the burled arch sometime around 1 a.m. tonight, if King and Zirkle make the 77-mile run at about the same speed of past leaders.

Update 3 p.m. Monday:

Jeff King nears 5th Iditarod title. 'I'm going to try to catch him,' Zirkle says.

From Casey Grove in White Mountain and Kyle Hopkins in Anchorage --

"Hike! Hike!"

Jeff King, 58, left White Mountain moments ago, kicking from his sled runners as his team begins the 77-mile run to Nome and, barring any major mishaps, a fifth Iditarod title for the Denali Park musher.

It's too early for congratulations, he warned a fan. "Well, we'll have to get through this run and then we'll party."

Aliy Zirkle, last year's runner up, is scheduled to leave 57 minutes behind King at 3:59 p.m.

"I'm going to try to catch him," Zirkle said as she posed for pictures and readied her huskies. "The team looks good."

Zirkle wore earbuds for one of the first times during the race. Last night the wind drowned out her workout mix of Lady Gaga and Kelly Clarkson tunes, she said.

Making up nearly an hour on the lead musher between White Mountain and Nome is unlikely unless King is forced to stop for some reason. Zirkle said she's ready for whatever comes. "I feel good."

A reporter asked if there is anything she would have done differently in the 2014 Iditarod, now that the finish is just hours away.

"Catching Jeff," she replied.

Update 10:30 a.m. Monday:

With a team built for bumpy trail, Dallas Seavey leaps to 3rd place

From Kevin Klott --

Willow's Dallas Seavey cruised into White Mountain this morning with a firm grip on third place.

The 2012 Iditarod champion signed in at 9:48 a.m. -- almost two hours behind Aliy Zirkle and two hours, 46 minutes behind race leader Jeff King -- and in good position to finish in the top eight for the sixth time in eight Iditarods.

Unless disaster strikes along the 77-mile trek from White Mountain to Safety to Nome, after Seavey leaves White Mountain at 5:48 p.m., the 26-year-old will be in line for the $44,900 check awarded to the third-place finisher.

Seavey, who was the 11th musher into Unalakleet on Sunday, has leapfrogged his way ahead one musher at a time. Despite being ahead of schedule, Seavey said he is where he is because his team is built for toughness rather than speed.

"They're more of an off-road vehicle than a sportster," he said of his dogs. "This year's been a race on a racetrack, not an off-road track."

His father, defending champion Mitch Seavey, is heading into White Mountain and battling with Big Lake's Martin Buser for fourth place.

Update 9:30 a.m. Monday

King first into White Mountain, almost an hour ahead of Zirkle

From Casey Grove in White Mountain --

Denali Park's Jeff King arrived here in the pre-dawn darkness with a team of dogs loping up the Fish River and into town a little less than an hour ahead of Two Rivers musher Aliy Zirkle.

There were no church bells to greet the leaders, only subzero temperatures and wind.

After parking his team and spreading hay for their beds, King put a sleeping bag over his leaders, took off his parka and laid that over two team dogs. He piled straw on the others.

Asked how he felt about his lead, while Zirkle's headlamp was just coming into view, King said, "Better every minute."

The 58-year-old said he felt less tired arriving here than in years past. Taking his mandatory 24-hour rest in Ruby, far later in the race than usual, helped keep him fresh.

Not that the path to White Mountain has been easy. Crossing frozen Golovin Bay before heading up the river was a challenge, King said.

"Not everybody's got leaders that'll go on that glare ice with not even a track," King said, giving praise to his leaders Zig and Skeeter. "If there was the teeniest little gust of wind, we all just blew over.

"It is really slippery."

Out of Koyuk the trail had started rough -- "logs and ice and turns and rocks," King said -- but the team eventually picked up speed. King said he thought he would have put more distance between himself and Zirkle, who was only a few minutes behind him in Elim.

"As I have done many times, I underestimated the speed of her team, or what she'd get out of it," King said. "She must've had a great run, too, because mine was really, really great."

Both mushers rested in Elim before the 46-mile run to White Mountain. King said he noticed Zirkle hobbling around. Zirkle had said in Koyuk that she strained her hamstring but said in White Mountain that it was not bothering her outside in the cold. It would probably tighten up inside the checkpoint building in the warmth, she said.

There had been trouble, though, when her leader, Quito, chewed through the tug lines connecting her to the rest of the team in Elim. The dog bolted after King's team, Zirkle said, and it took some time to wrangle her.

"I knew there were dog eyes, I just didn't know which ones were hers," Zirkle said. "I feel like I got a little far behind."

"I'm happy to be here," she said. "It's so funny, this part of the race. You look forward to the race all year, and you enjoy the race, and then you get here, and you're like, 'Oh my god, I want it to end!' "

Update 8:30 a.m. Monday

Zirkle arrives in White Mountain

From Kevin Klott --

Aliy Zirkle checked into White Mountain at 7:59 a.m. Monday with 11 dogs and almost an hour behind leader Jeff King.

Zirkle will be able to leave the checkpoint at 3:59 p.m. Monday after her mandatory eight-hour rest, which will give King and his team of 12 dogs a 57-minute head start on their way to Nome.

Update 7:45 a.m. Monday

King begins 8-hour rest after extending lead

From Kevin Klott --

Jeff King has beaten Aliy Zirkle to the White Mountain checkpoint, the second-to-last stop before mushers reach the finish line.

The 58-year-old King put a considerable amount of distance between himself and Zirkle since he left Kaltag a minute ahead of the Two Rivers musher Sunday afternoon. He checked into White Mountain at 7:02 a.m., with Zirkle several miles behind, according to her GPS tracker.

All mushers are required to stay in White Mountain for eight hours, which means King will be allowed to leave at 3:02 p.m. Soon after, Zirkle will be on the heels of King in hopes of stopping the Denali Park musher from winning his record-tying fifth Iditarod crown.

Almost a decade has passed since King won the Last Great Race. At 50 years old, he became the oldest musher to win the Iditarod. He pulled into White Mountain more than three hours ahead of Montana's Doug Swingley, which allowed him to put his dogs on cruise control for the final 77 miles.

This year, however, could be more of a fight to the finish line, where the winning prize waits -- a check for $50,400 and the keys to a new Dodge truck.

Update 6:30 a.m. Monday

Dueling for the lead: King leaves Elim 8 minutes ahead of Zirkle

From Kevin Klott --

The fight to Front Street continued Monday morning between Denali Park's Jeff King and Two Rivers' Aliy Zirkle, with King leading the way out of Elim toward White Mountain, the last major stop before Nome.

The 58-year-old King checked out of Elim with an eight-minute lead over the 44-year-old Zirkle. The two have been jockeying for the lead since Saturday, when they reached Unalakleet.

King and Zirkle are expected to arrive into White Mountain within the next hour. When they do, they will be ready for their required eight-hour pit stop on the Fish River before making the final 77-mile push toward the Burled Arch on Front Street.

Here are the potential story lines: After coming out of retirement in 2012, King seeks a record-tying fifth Iditarod crown, which would also make him the race's oldest winner at 58; Zirkle, who has finished runner-up in back-to-back Iditarods, is trying to win her first championship and become the first woman to win it since 1990.

Regardless of who wins, one of them is expected to break the record run by Kotzebue's John Baker in 2011. As of Monday morning in Elim, King was about eight hours ahead of Baker's pace.

It could also turn into one of the closest Iditarod finishes ever.

Another intriguing story line is Dallas Seavey, the 2012 Iditarod champion who seems to be making a last-ditch effort to catch King and Zirkle. The Willow musher has only eight dogs but is posting the fastest run times among the top three.

"It makes it really hard to catch up on a really nice trail," he said in Koyuk. "My team isn't built for top-end speed."

Seavey, 26, was an hour and 51 minutes behind Zirkle when he left Elim at 2:52 a.m. Catching her or King is unlikely but not out of the question.

"We've got to give them the opportunity to shine," he said. "They've worked hard to get here. That being said, if a team can do it even better than us, more power to 'em. If not, then I guess we win.

"As long as I can walk away from this thing feeling like I ran the dog team wisely and got them there as fast as they can, then we'll be happy with whatever place that -- hopefully that's in the top five."

Telecommunications services for ADN Iditarod coverage provided by GCI.

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