NULATO — Jeff King doesn't want to hurry anymore.

"I have spent 40 years being in a hurry with my work, my family, my race. It cost me some friends. It's just the way it is," the 61-year-old King said Sunday inside the school gymnasium here. "But I finally realized, I don't want to be in a hurry anymore."

Since 1991, the Denali Park musher has only missed one Iditarod, in 2011, when he hinted at retirement but quickly returned. He has placed among the top 10 in 20 of those races, including ninth last year, and has won nearly $1 million in prize money. On Tuesday morning, he was 18th out of Koyuk.

But he's always had to rush. To win this race, you have to hurry — and when you hurry, you can miss things, King said. He believes he's done just that.

"I've met people, even a vet this morning, and I introduced myself and I said, 'Gee, are you new?' And he said, 'I've been here for seven years,' " King said. "And I didn't even frickin' know his name."

Jeff King poses for a photograph with young fan Cassidy Ekada at the Nulato checkpoint on Sunday. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)
Jeff King poses for a photograph with young fan Cassidy Ekada at the Nulato checkpoint on Sunday. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

King said he even apologized to a musher earlier that day for acting rude in the past.

"I said, 'Well, I'm sorry, I've been in a hurry,' " King said. "The last thing on my mind was what other people thought or felt. Everything's got a price."

This year, a sore Achilles tendon left King hobbling around checkpoints. He said he didn't feel like he has the "get-up-and-go" he normally does. Just thinking about the front-runners shooting out of Tanana and camping on the way to Ruby left him feeling exhausted.

"Been there, done that, more power to them. But I don't have the energy and enthusiasm to race that hard anymore," King said as he ate a couple of hot dogs covered in beans at the Nulato checkpoint.

Jeff King has a hot meal while the container of animal crackers he brought as a gift for the village sits on the table of the Nulato checkpoint. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)
Jeff King has a hot meal while the container of animal crackers he brought as a gift for the village sits on the table of the Nulato checkpoint. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

King said he felt privileged to enter his 60s and still have his health, but "I can't expect to be the same guy I was at 35." Next year, he might look into running the Iditarod as a mentor for another musher, possibly his daughter, who has thought about entering, he said.

"This is not with remorse or tears," he said. "There's a lot of things to do and it's a shame to be in a hurry through the fun ones. Running the Iditarod is one of them. What a frickin' shame to end up 15th instead of 20th and realize you missed a chance to meet some people who admire you and told you nice things and you don't even know about them," he said.

King knows he's moving slower this year than in the past and that it will impact how fast he reaches Nome.

"It's pretty obvious this will be my lowest finish in my entire career," said King, whose lowest finish so far is 28th place as a rookie in 1981.

King said as he and his sled dog team ran into Nulato on Sunday, he got stuck on a song.

"The words of that old Bob Dylan song were going through my head today," he said, slightly paraphrasing the lyrics. "He who was first will soon be last. The times they are a-changin'."