Lance Mackey is well positioned for his fourth consecutive Iditarod victory. Unless he has problems with his dog team or makes a substantial error, the two and a half hour lead he has will be hard to close.
By the time Jeff King pulled into Elim Monday afternoon just before 3 p.m., Mackey had come and gone -- navigating a sea ice section of trail under clear skies and a brilliant arctic sun as he headed toward Golovin.
From a section of the outbound trail near the village at about 1:15 p.m., Mackey said his team was slow but doing well overall. "We just can't wait to get to White Mountain," he said. "We're beat."
At this stage in the race, "nobody's going to run anybody down," said Bruce Lee with the Iditarod Insider, who was in Elim to catch the leaders coming through. It will take a fumble -- like losing a trail marker, trouble with a dog, or oversleeping -- to topple Mackey's current dominance, Lee said.
Race checkers in Elim described Mackey's blazing quick pit stop as a "whirlwind of activity." In 15 minutes, the defending champ dropped a dog (Chucko, tired and with sore feet), had a cup of coffee with cream and sugar, fed his team, restocked his sled and signed two autographs, said Bill Gallea, a volunteer checker from Montana.
Sitting down to a lunch of lasagna, cheesecake and black coffee in the Elim firehouse (checkpoint headquarters), King said he's not going to make an all out run for Mackey.
"I won't -- I can't -- do what he's doing," King said.
The four-time champ on a career-capping run pulled in with a duct-taped hand and a dog who decided to stop pulling. Somewhere along the trail King cut his knuckle, although he doesn't know how, and "Berkely," a veteran of King's 2006 winning race who's decided she's done, will stay behind in Elim.
King had a chance to watch Mackey leave the earlier checkpoint of Shaktoolik, and thought Mackey's team looked reluctant. It's one thing to want your team to keep moving, but if they think they're done and conditioned for a break it can be difficult to motivate them, King said.
"I think he's gambling," King said, recalling a time when his own team refused to travel the distance between Elim and Golovin without a break.
"I swear to God, winning this race isn't worth -- I will not substitute my team being miserable. Period," King said.
Two years ago when King attempted to shoot out of Elim without a break, his team revolted and the musher was forced to take a nap at a shelter cabin to give them the break they had learned to expect.
"That's the advantage of age. You get older, but you also get smarter," he said, referring to his choice to rest his team for one to three hours in the village before moving on.
Another veteran musher, Hans Gatt, came in and out of Elim during King's stay, which moves him into second position behind Mackey. Like King, he feels Mackey's lead is too large to close.
The farther north mushers get, they leave the spell of unforgivingly cold weather that had stayed with them to Unalakleet. But milder temperatures and calm winds aren't always great news. The dogs will be more apt to overheat, and one section of the run to Golovin is uphill, a climb affectionately dubbed "Little McKinley" -- not because it's big, but because it feels that big this far into the race, Gallea said.
According to King, conditions in the sea ice are challenging. Instead of smooth snow, the snow is crystalline and shell-like, which is tough on the dogs, he said.
Although he knows the race is Mackey's to lose, King reminded reporters in Elim that it's not over until it's over. Anything can change at any time, something Mackey himself confirmed as he rode north across the ice toward Elim when he said he wouldn't trust his lead until he crossed beneath the burled arch in Nome.
"We have 24 hours to go. We'll see if he steps on his cape or if somebody else finds a rocket launcher and takes him down," King said.
King left Elim in third place at 4:30 p.m.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com.