KOYUK, Alaska — Until he spotted her ahead of him as he was coming into this village Sunday afternoon, Jeff King hadn’t seen Aliy Zirkle all race.
“I’ll probably see her for the trip over to Elim,” King said as he prepared his team for departure and the 48-mile push to Elim.
Will he ever.
King, the four-time champion from Denali Park, caught up to Zirkle, the two-time runner-up from Two Rivers, right before Koyuk. Zirkle reached the checkpoint one minute before King. About four hours later, King left one minute before Zirkle.
The leaders are on record pace as they near Nome, the finish line of the 1,000-mile race that started March 2 in Willow. Koyuk is about 170 miles from the finish, and while Zirkle and King jockey for the lead, they probably shouldn’t forget about the mushers behind them.
The monster is out of its cage, 2012 champion Dallas Seavey said of his dog team, which made big gains on the leaders Sunday.
Whether they’ve jumped out to a big lead or let their dog teams simmer waiting for an explosive finish, like Dallas and his father Mitch Seavey have, the leading mushers are poised to shatter John Baker’s 2011 record of 8 days, 18 hours, 46 minutes, 39 seconds.
King and Zirkle left Koyuk shortly before 6 p.m. Sunday; when Baker set the record, he left the checkpoint around 3 a.m. Monday.
A couple of hours behind them are a group that includes both Seaveys. As defending champion Mitch said Saturday night in Unalakleet while eating eggs and bacon inside the checkpoint building, “Some people, I think, are so concerned with winning from Day 1, they don’t have patience.
“I’ve got tunnel vision,” he said. “I’m going to get to Nome as fast as I can. And some people are going to get run over.
“The more obstacles there are, the better.”
The clash of strategies — whether to push hard to the front and stay there, or linger within striking distance and wait for a chance to make a move — is something both Seaveys predicted would play out during the race. In Kaltag, Dallas said the hard and fast trail favored a bold, early move like Martin Buser had made. Less resistance on a tired team would be good for him.
If he’s going to win again, Dallas will have to overtake King and Zirkle in the last 170 miles. He’s also racing his dad, who showed up in Koyuk a little less than an hour after him.
“This year, we’re right in the mix, but it’s not exactly like we have control of this thing,” Dallas said as gusting wind blew through Koyuk, his dogs napping in hay after a hearty meal. “Look around, you got half a dozen of the best dog teams in the world right here. And I’m behind. So just because I’ve been gaining doesn’t mean I can continue to gain at that pace.”
Seavey was nearly 10 hours behind Zirkle out of Kaltag. By Koyuk, he was less than three hours behind.
“Now, the race comes down to, ‘Is the speed enough to catch the lead?’ ” he said.
Zirkle and King both slept for about an hour in Koyuk.
“The dogs look good, and it was fun to catch up to the front here,” King said, a little bleary-eyed.
Zirkle looked tired, too. She said she hurt her hamstring somewhere earlier in the race and started to feel it in the mountains before Shaktoolik.
“It’s definitely not 100 percent,” she said. “But that’s OK, I’m getting close to where I wanted to be.”
King seemed intent on staying close behind Zirkle leaving Koyuk. When she led her team onto the icy street — “Whoop, whoop. C’mon dogs”— King had his team standing. Zirkle stopped, and King coaxed his team past hers.
But King missed a sharp right turn from the downhill street to the trail. Zirkle made it, but tipped over her sled. Heading onto the tundra, she was leading.
Buser reached Koyuk more than two hours after King and Zirkle and was still sleeping when they left. As in Unalakleet, he said his dogs were tired. A dislocated pinky on his left hand was still giving him trouble and getting worse, he said.
“I’m happy to be on this side of the pond, though,” Buser said, referring to the cracked sea ice of Norton Sound, a notoriously windy stretch with no chance for shelter. “I’m glad to have made it across.”