Jeff King is into White Mountain Monday morning, slowly growing his lead over Aliy Zirkle as the top Iditarod mushers race along the coast in the final miles to Nome.
Both mushers have been racing smaller teams, Zirkle with 11 dogs since and King with 12 after both dropped their last dog in Kaltag.
For King, it’s been a lead he’s slowly expanding along the coast. He led out of Koyuk Sunday night, leaving just one minute ahead of Zirkle at 5:50 p.m. The two were racing at speeds in excess of 8 mph Sunday, with King pulling into Elim just minutes before 11:30 pm. Zirkle was about a quarter of an hour behind him.
Both teams rested just over an hour before hitting the trail again, King just seven minutes before 1 a.m. and Zirkle just a minute after.
That’s when King slowly put gradually put more distance between himself and Zirkle, clocking speeds just a mile per hour faster. By early Monday morning King had beaten Zirkle into White Mountain, arriving at 7:02 a.m. at the checkpoint that marks the final 77 miles to Nome. Just shy of an hour later, Zirkle was officially in White Mountain at 7:59 a.m.
King and Zirkle will both now take a race-mandated 8 hour layover before beginning the final stretch into Nome. King can leave just after 3 p.m, Zirkle just before 4 p.m.
Behind the front runners, Martin Buser had been giving chase for some time, but by Monday morning, both Dallas and Mitch Seavey had passed Buser.
Dallas, the younger Seavey and the race’s 2012 winner, actually passed Buser between Koyuk and Elim, arriving more than 25 minutes ahead of Buser and maintain that lead en route to White Mountain. He pulled into White Mountain around 9:48 a.m.
Defending champion Mitch Seavey has also passed Buser, pulling ahead about half way between Elim and White Mountain. The elder Seavey was in White Mountain one minute after noon Monday.
As of 1 p.m. Martin Buser was still on his way to his 8 hour rest, but other mushers were quickly catching up: 2013 Rookie of the Year, Norwegian musher Joar Leifseth Ulsom, was pinging the satellite tracker just a mile behind Buser, erasing a nearly 2.5 hour lead Buser held out of Elim.
Sonny Linder, the Two Rivers musher who left Elim 20 minutes behind Buser, was also just two miles behind Buser.
The race is far from over, as the final miles to Nome have made the difference between a first or second-place finish before. But history shows King has the advantage along the final leg of the race.
Zirkle, who has raced to a tight second-place finish in the past two Iditarods, ran to Nome in just under 9 hours and 40 minutes last year. Before that, when Zirkle battled it out in the final miles of the race with Dallas Seavey in 2012, it took her closer to 10 hours.
For King, his 2012 trip to the Norton Sound coast ended in Unalakleet, when his dogs simply refused to race any further and he scratched. But last year King finished third and covered the 77 miles from White Mountain to Nome in about 9 hours and 30 minutes.
In 2011 John Baker smashed the previous all-time speed to Nome of 8 days, 18 hours, and 46 minutes. In that race, Baker and now-scratched Willow musher Ramey Smyth made it from White Mountain to Nome in about 9 hours and 45 minutes.
Baker’s time to Nome—both in the final miles to the finish and his total trail time—could soon be knocked down the ranks in the history books. Both King and Zirkle are on a record-setting pace into Nome, but reportedly poor trail conditions along the Bering Sea coast and into the Gold Rush City means anything—from a fast trail to a last-minute surge—can happen before a winner for Iditarod 42 is decided.