NOME, Alaska - In a year marked by injuries and dangerous conditions, the final stages of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race were coming down to either a record-tying number of wins or the first woman to claim victory in 24 years.
One of those appeared to be the likely outcome of this year's nearly 1,000-mile race across Alaska, as the first two mushers arrived at the second-to-last checkpoint Monday morning. They were Jeff King, 58, and Aliy Zirkle, 44, both of Alaska.
King, a four-time champion, is attempting to become the race's second five-time winner. He arrived at 7:02 a.m. at the White Mountain checkpoint, 77 miles from the finish line in Nome, and left at 3:02 p.m. AKST, fulfilling exactly the eight-hour rest requirement there.
Zirkle, 44, who has finished second in the last two Iditarods, arrived at 7:59 a.m. She began the chase for King on the Bering Sea ice when she left the checkpoint at 4 p.m.
A winner could reach the finish line as soon as early Tuesday, with mushers on what appears to be a record pace despite poor trail conditions.
Not to be counted out just yet is 2012 champion Dallas Seavey, who was running third and pulled into White Mountain at 9:48 a.m.
King and Zirkle have been leap-frogging each other in the latter portion of the race.
"We were flying through there," King told the Iditarod website following Sunday's run between the checkpoints in Elim and Koyuk.
"I really thought I would open up a big space between me and Aliy," he said. But he quickly added that, as he has done before, "I have underestimated the speed of her team and what she can get out of it."
He believed he was far ahead of her, but then saw her headlamp near the village of Golovin.
Zirkle remained optimistic, telling the website: "I know I have a lot fans rooting for me. Believe me, I am trying."
The last woman to win the race was four-time champion Susan Butcher in 1990. Libby Riddles was the first female winner, taking the crown in 1985.
King won the Iditarod in 1993, 1996, 1998 and 2006. Rick Swenson, of Two Rivers, is the race's only five-time champion. If King wins, he'll also become the Iditarod's oldest champion. That record is held by Mitch Seavey, who was 53 when he won last year. Mitch Seavey was running in fifth place Monday.
The trail this year has been marked by poor conditions because of a lack of snow after a warm winter by Alaska standards.
A number of mushers were injured at the beginning of the race as their sleds ran on gravel near the Dalzell Gorge. One musher, Scott Janssen of Anchorage, had to be rescued by a National Guard helicopter crew after breaking an ankle.
Snowless conditions again greeted mushers as they reached the western coast of the nation's largest state.
The race began March 2 in Willow with 69 teams. As of Monday morning, 15 mushers had dropped out and one was withdrawn, leaving 53 teams on the trail.
While the mushers rested in White Mountain, volunteers and city workers prepared Nome for the finish. The Iditarod banner was hung over the finish line, the famous burled arch.
City crews on Sunday also trucked in snow to give the mushers a path once they leave the Bering Sea ice.
"Yeah, I know, it's funny to see people dumping snow on a street instead of taking it off the street," said Greg Bill, the Iditarod's development director. "To really dress it up and make it safe for the dog teams, we have to spread a layer of snow down for them to run on."
About 200 volunteers also have descended on Nome to make other last-minute preparations, including getting the dog lot ready to receive teams, constructing the finish chute, and prepping the souvenir stand.
Bill McCormick of Greensboro, N.C., volunteered for his first Iditarod in 1998 and has been back every year since.
"I like being part of putting something on," said the retired engineer whose job as a volunteer is to drug test the dogs. "I enjoy the people. It's like family now."
Scott Hughes was helped hammer nails at the finish line Sunday. The University of Pittsburgh student made his first trip to the Iditarod and the nation's northernmost state as part of a church group doing mission work.
"It's amazing," Hughes said of his visit to Nome. Temperatures there were below zero Monday morning.
The Iditarod winner receives $50,000 and a new truck. The 29 teams after that get cash prizes decreasing on a sliding scale. All other teams finishing the race receive $1,049.
John Baker holds the fastest finish in Iditarod history, covering the trail from Anchorage to Nome in eight days, 18 hours and 46 minutes in 2011.