The internet is spotty in the Iditarod checkpoint of Ruby, so Alaska Dispatch's own Jill Burke and Stephen Nowers are filing reports to the newsroom via telephone this Friday. Keep checking back throughout the morning for updates.
Early Friday morning, Jeff King became the first musher to arrive in Ruby, and as is traditional, by doing so he, and a person of his choosing, earned a special, multi-course dinner:
King dug into that bounty while sitting in a special place of honor at Iditarod Race Headquarters in Ruby.
[Update-1 (4:31 a.m. AST)] King chose a long-time handler and friend as his dining partner. Sitting down, King rubbed his hands together and said, "Alright man, glad to be here. What's for dinner?"
Then he donned a large yellow napkin, tucking it into his collar,and allowed himself to be served a glass of wine. He said that he was looking forward to getting some rest and that the wine would probably help. Then the diners toasted: "To Iditarod 2010, the best one ever."
Also, three-time defending champion Lance Mackey has just pulled into Ruby in second place with 13 dogs.
[Update-2 (5:12 a.m. AST)] The temperature in Ruby this morning has been hovering around 38 below zero. And one of the first things Lance Mackey said after arriving earlier this morning at Iditarod Headquarters in Ruby was that he was "cold as hell" and that his feet felt "like blocks of ice."
Mackey had to drop a dog (named Lisa) in Ruby, leaving his team down to 12 dogs. Leaving Ruby with fewer dogs, Mackey knows he won't be able to go as fast as he'd like, but he says he and his team are still in the race to arrive first in Nome. In 2008, Mackey was struggling but came from behind to win, so he knows it's still possible this year.
When asked if current leader Jeff King has any weaknesses, Mackey initially said none that he could think of. But after thinking for a while, Mackey said he knows he doesn't need as much sleep as King does, so maybe he can turn that into an advantage.
After Mackey lined out his dogs and went in for a short nap, he grabbed a cup of black coffee and a tuna salad sandwich. He said he and his team are feeling good but that the hardest thing for him right now is he's running young dogs who don't feel like a cohesive team yet. With 20-20 hindsight, and with his 2010 Iditarod about half over, Mackey said it would have been a better idea to run his young dogs in this year's Yukon Quest, and use his veteran dogs in the Iditarod.
"I'm not sure if I'm doing this shit right or not," Mackey, who is defending his third consecutive Iditarod Championship, said to a group of locals from Ruby gathered in Iditarod HQ.
When Mackey came in to the checkpoint, he and King did not acknowledge each other, and the atmosphere between the two frontrunning rivals, sub-zero air temperatures notwithstanding, seemed a bit chilly.
That having been said, Mackey said there would be no shame coming in second to a great champion like King. And although he predicted King would push on and scoop up all the prizes awarded for coming into the next checkpoints first, Mackey isn't conceding the race.
For dessert after the special meal King won for being first into Ruby, he was presented with $3,500 cash, tendered, according to tradition, in a big stack of one-dollar bills. When asked if he has ever spent any of the singles he's won during his career for arriving first in Ruby, he replied he indeed had. Once, he bought a new snowmachine.
In an interview after his opulent meal, King spoke about his team's chances. He said that he's got a great team and that because he's been holding his dogs back, they haven't been going as fast as they are able. Which is noteworthy because King and his huskies made great time to Ruby.
King's chances to secure his fifth Iditarod crown look good, but he maintains this is his last time running The Last Great Race. "Regardless of the outcome, it is a great, last Iditarod act. I am a happy man. I love Iditarod, but I am done with it," he said.
So no matter what happens in the coming days as a strong field of mushers continue to pursue King, Iditarod 2010 will be a career-capping race for him.