By Rachel DOro and Mark Thiessen Associated Press
NOME, Alaska — Another former champion leapfrogged to the lead Monday in the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Four-time winner Jeff King was first to cross the checkpoint in Koyuk at 8:17 a.m. The village is about 170 miles from the Iditarod’s finish line in Nome, the frontier town on Alaska’s wind-pummeled coast.
Front-runners began traveling north along the frozen Bering Sea Coast on Sunday. From the checkpoint in Koyuk, they now head west along the coastline to reach Nome.
King pulled left Koyuk just six minutes after arriving, then camped out for a while 8 miles from the checkpoint. His team began moving again late morning, according to positioning trackers attached to all the mushers’ sleds.
“You must be having fun,” a local said as the 57-year-old veteran prepared to leave Koyuk.
“Does it show?” King said.
Mitch Seavey, the 2004 winner and father of defending champion Dallas Seavey, fed his team as King headed out.
The elder Seavey had been leading since Sunday and beat King to Koyuk by 34 minutes. The 53-year-old musher rested his team then left three hours and two minutes after King.
“Only one thing to do,” Seavey said in an Iditarod.com video. “I can’t make speed without resting.”
Third into Koyuk was last year’s runner-up, Aliy Zirkle, who clocked in at 9:28 a.m. Monday. She was followed one minute later by Ray Redington Jr., the grandson of race co-founder Joe Redington Sr., and she beat him out of the checkpoint by five minutes after a rest of nearly four hours.
The race began March 2 with 66 teams at a ceremonial start in Anchorage. The competitive start began the following day in Willow and has since changed leaders several times.
Five mushers have scratched. A sixth, Canadian Gerry Willomitzer, was withdrawn Sunday after losing a dog that was later found.
The first musher to reach Nome will win $50,400 and a new 2013 Dodge Ram pickup truck. The rest of the $600,000 purse will be split among the next 29 mushers to cross the finish line.
As teams push toward Nome, the town of 3,700 was bustling with anticipation.
Volunteers in the old gold rush town erected the famed burled arch on Front Street, a block off the sea, on Sunday. Monday morning, volunteers put up the finish banner that hangs above the arch.
Inside the city’s small convention center, which doubles as race headquarters, banners with each musher’s name were being hung from the rafters by volunteers working with Alaska Missions including Shannon Scoggins, 22, of Stephenville, Texas.
Her group will spend the rest of the week caring for the canine participants at dog lots on the outskirts of town.
“It’ll be a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” she said. “We’re excited about that.”
In Nome, race spokeswoman Erin McLarnon said the race was shaping up to have an exciting finish with so many front-runners clustered together.
But will it match the 1978 mad dash down Front Street that left Dick Mackey as the winner with one seconds to spare over Rick Swenson, who went on to become the Iditarod’s only five-time champion?
“You know, it very well could be” McLarnon said. “The way the things are looking right now, it could be one of those close ones.”
Race watchers are predicting a finish this afternoon in Nome, but off any record-setting pace. McLarnon said it usually takes mushers about 18 hours to reach Front Street after they hit White Mountain, a checkpoint 77 miles from the finish and where they have to take a mandatory eight-hour layover.
“In that last 77 miles, anything can happen,” McLarnon said.
Associated Press Rachel D’Oro reported from Anchorage.