ANCHORAGE, Alaska A four-time champion and a two-time runner-up led a small pack of mushers on Monday into the home stretch of this year's Iditarod Sled Dog Race, which started March 2 with 69 teams embarking on the 1,000-mile course through Alaska's tundra.
Jeff King, striving for a record fifth Iditarod crown, and Aliy Zirkle, seeking to become the first woman to win the race in more than a decade, were to set out Monday from a checkpoint about 77 miles from the finish line at the coastal town of Nome.
King held a slight edge over Zirkle, reaching the White Mountain checkpoint a short time before she did before dawn. One more checkpoint remained before mushers hit the final segment into Nome.
Should King, 58, of Denali, Alaska, hold off Zirkle, he would become the first musher in the race's 42-year history to win five times, and with that, a $54,000 purse and pickup truck.
He also would hand 44-year-old Zirkle, of Two Rivers, Alaska, her third straight runner-up prize.
The punishing round-the-clock marathon commemorates a rescue mission that carried diphtheria serum by sled-dog relay to Nome in 1925. While most competitors are from Alaska, the race has drawn entrants from as far away as Norway, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Sweden and Jamaica.
Race analyst and former champion Joe Runyan, tracking the contest for the Iditarod website, said King was visibly fatigued as he arrived at White Mountain.
"Early morning arrivals are always a little subdued with the human biorhythm generally at risk," Runyan wrote. "King was cogent and had a good trail narrative for the press as he leaned against the handle bar of his sled, but (he) was also very tired."
Another musher regarded as an early favorite, Dallas Seavey, was making a late-hour push of his own. But Runyan said the 26-year-old, 2012 champion was running out of time.
Seavey started the race with 16 dogs, but was down to eight. Veterinarians examine the dog teams at each checkpoint to determine whether any of the dogs are unfit to continue. Rules require each musher to have at least six dogs to stay in the race.
Rounding out the top five mushers on Monday were two more former title winners, defending champion Mitch Seavey - Dallas Seavey's father - and Martin Buser, making the race one of the most "intense," according to onetime Iditarod competitor Sebastian Schnuelle.
King first raced in 1981, then took 10 years off before becoming a signature figure on the trails.
Since 1992 he has posted 18 top-10 finishes, including his four victories. His most recent first-place finish came in 2006, the year before Lance Mackey went on a four-year winning streak.
A victory this year would push his total race winnings to slightly more than $900,000.
Zirkle is newer to the race, competing every year since 2001. She emerged as a serious contender last year by posting her second straight runner-up finish and already has more than $225,000 in career earnings.
Sixteen racers scratched, most of them after the first three or four checkpoints. The field included 19 rookie mushers. Seventeen remained on the trail on Monday.
(Reporting by Steve Quinn; Editing by Steve Gorman and Grant McCool)