KOYUK -- As four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King approached this village just 170 miles from the finish of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race, he glanced up and saw what he first thought was a mirage.
In the distance, a ghostly figure in white slowly moved toward the Seward Peninsula community. But it was no mirage. It was Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers, the leader of the world's premier distance sled dog race, wearing a white wind suit. And Zirkle was a vision of hope that the 58-year-old King might finally be able to join Rick Swenson as the race's only five-time champions. Days ago, King was hours behind. Now, he was neck and neck -- pulling in just a minute behind Zirkle before grabbing the lead by leaving one minute ahead of her at 5:50 p.m.
"I was thrilled," King said of seeing Zirkle as they approached the checkpoint. "I thought I was close, but maybe not that close."
And the thrill of a pitched battle energized his every move. King skidded into his parking spot here with a full cooler of dog food. After setting his hook, he grabbed the blue-and-white container and went to laying out food for his dogs rapidly -- spreading it on the snow for them to snack on -- only to come back a moment later with a full blue plastic bag of straw. He covered the dogs, building little nests for leaders like Barnum, a tall back dog who has led his most of the race, and his mother, Skeeter, who took over on the treacherous trip from Shaktoolik, the previous checkpoint some 50 miles back down the trail.