RACHEL D’ORO and MARK THIESSEN
NOME, Alaska — Thirteen minutes.
After mushing about 930 miles across the Alaska wilderness the last nine days, that’s all that separated the first two teams in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Mitch Seavey was the first musher into the checkpoint at White Mountain, 77 miles from the finish line in Nome. He checked in at 5:11 a.m. Tuesday, and Aliy Zirkle, last year’s runner-up, followed him at 5:24 a.m.
And now it’s a waiting game.
All mushers have to take an eight-hour mandatory rest at White Mountain, and then it will be a mad dash for the burled arch finish line in downtown Nome. The winner is expected sometime late Tuesday evening.
“They’re both great mushers, very talented, kind of that dog whisperer that I like to call some of those top mushers,” said race spokeswoman Erin McLarnon.
But at this point, it’s anybody’s guess who will cross the finish line first.
“Mitch doesn’t have a super solid lead. I mean, 13 minutes, anything can happen,” she said.
It’s likely Seavey, the 2004 champion and father of last year’s winner, Dallas Seavey, and Zirkle won’t be alone as they make the last run on the Bering Sea coast.
Four-time champion Jeff King is in third place, and checked into White Mountain at 6:52 a.m. He and Zirkle covered the last 46-mile section of trail, from Elim to White Mountain, a half hour faster than Mitch Seavey.
Seavey and Zirkle each have 10 dogs left on their team; King arrived at White Mountain with 11.
“Last year we saw a lot of those youngsters in the top 10,” McLarnon said. “Some of those 45-plussers are taking back the lead this year. They are showing the young ‘uns what they can really do out there on that trail.”
The defending champion and youngest winner ever, Dallas Seavey, 26, arrived in White Mountain at 8:09 and Ray Redington Jr., a grandson of a race co-founder, was two minutes behind him.
White Mountain was a crowded checkpoint Tuesday morning as other mushers arrived, including Norwegian rookie Joar Leifseth Ulsom, French native Nicolas Petit, Jake Berkowitz of Big Lake, Alaska, Nome hometown hero Aaron Burmeister and Sonny Lindner of Two Rivers, Alaska, rounding out the first ten into the checkpoint.
The excitement for a mad dash down Front Street, a block off the frozen Bering Sea, that could parallel the 1978 photo finish between winner Dick Mackey and Rick Swenson has fans gathered in Nome excited to see the end of the race.
“I think having a real race from White Mountain to Nome is probably more exciting than having the winner already decided for the most part,” said Jerry Spindler II of Fort Wayne, Ind.
He previously saw the end of Iditarod in 1995 and 1999, but this trip is special since his son, Jason, is completing an internship with the race. His father, Jerry Spindler, also made his first trip to Alaska from Indiana.
The race for 66 mushers began with a ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage on March 2, and the competitive start was the following day in Willow, Alaska. Eight mushers have scratched. The latest scratches came Tuesday, from two Wasilla mushers.
Jason Mackey was attempting to become an Iditarod champion like his father, Dick, and brothers Rick and Lance, but had to pull out of the race in Unalakleet because of the flu.
Rudy Demonski Sr. also scratched in Unalakleet over concern for his dog team.
The winner will receive $50,400 and a new pickup.
D’Oro contributed to this report from Anchorage.