ANCHORAGE — Four-time champion Jeff King took a razor-thin lead in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Sunday, trading places with his closest rival by departing a checkpoint one minute earlier on Alaska’s wind-scoured western coast.
Aliy Zirkle led hours before when she arrived at the Norton Bay village of Koyuk one minute ahead of King on Sunday afternoon.
King rested his 12-dog team at the checkpoint for three hours and 42 minutes, while Zirkle and her 11 dogs took a break for three hours and 44 minutes. King departed Koyuk at 5:50 p.m. Sunday, and Zirkle got back on the trail at 5:51 p.m.
They are on a 48-mile dash to the next checkpoint of Elim on Golovin Bay, 123 miles from the finish line in Nome.
King last won in 2006 and is trying to be only the second musher to win five races.
Zirkle has come in second place the last two years in the nearly 1,000-mile race. She is seeking to become only the third woman to win the race and the first woman since the late Susan Butcher in 1990.
Zirkle arrived at Koyuk at 2:07 p.m. Sunday after a 50-mile run from the previous checkpoint at Shaktoolik. King arrived close behind at 2:08 p.m.
Other front-runners Sunday were four-time champion Martin Buser, who arrived in Koyuk in third place at 4:20 p.m. Sunday, followed 13 minutes later by 2012 Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey. Veteran musher Sonny Lindner arrived in fifth place at 4:47 p.m., followed by defending champion Mitch Seavey, father of Dallas Seavey, at 5:23 p.m.
Veteran Aaron Burmeister had been sixth out of Shaktoolik but arrived in Koyuk at 5:58 p.m., after Mitch Seavey.
The racers, who have two more checkpoints after Elim and before Nome, are expected to begin arriving in Nome no later than Tuesday.
While the front-runners were gunning up the Bering Sea coast, volunteers and Nome city crews were busily preparing the old Gold Rush town for the coming onslaught of dog teams and spectators. Dog lots were being readied, and volunteers at the town’s mini convention center were folding souvenir T-shirts to be sold. Early Sunday morning, the famed burled arch marking the finish line was moved by bulldozer from a city parking lot to its yearly spot on Front Street.
Temperatures in Nome hovered slightly above zero Sunday, which brought clear conditions and brilliant sunshine. Snowfall has been light this winter in the frontier town of nearly 3,700, so the city has been stockpiling snow, which was being trucked to Front Street for the final stretch to the finish line.
The race began March 2 in Willow with 69 teams. As of Sunday afternoon, 16 mushers had scratched, leaving 53 teams on the trail, which was marked by long stretches of bare and rocky ground that made for an icy, treacherous trail in the early part of the race.
Zirkle on Saturday was the first musher to reach the coastal community of Unalakleet. But she thought she was running second behind Buser, learning only later that he was resting at a cabin. Thinking she was running second, she wasn’t all hyped up thinking she was first, Zirkle said before taking off from the Unalakleet Saturday night.
“I made the run really mellow,” she said in a video posted on the Iditarod website.
King left Unalakleet 69 minutes later, saying he and his dogs were feeling great. King, 58, has been battling a stiff back, shoulders and arms all winter, but he was feeling “loose as a cucumber now,” King said in an Iditarod video.
“Man, my aches and pains go way when I rattle down the trail,” he said. “I swear it.”
The first to reach Nome wins $50,000 and a new truck. The 29 teams after that win cash prizes decreasing on a sliding scale. All other teams finishing the race receive $1,049.