NOME, Alaska (AP) — The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was turning into a mad dash on the Bering Sea ice for Nome early Tuesday, a scenario that was far from what most had expected.
Four-time champion Jeff King was cruising to a record-tying fifth win when a gust of wind blew him off course, effectively taking him out of the mix just miles from Nome. Until then, he had a safe lead of an hour.
That left second- and third-place mushers Aliy Zirkle and Dallas Seavey to battle the conditions and each other to win the race, a drama they've played out before.
Zirkle was the first musher to reach the last checkpoint in Safety, about 22 miles from Nome, but she apparently decided to wait out the storm that took King out of the race.
Seavey started the day much farther behind but caught up quickly. He blew through the checkpoint to take the race lead. Zirkle quickly followed suit, and left Safety 19 minutes after Seavey.
She had 10 dogs on her team, while Seavey was down to seven dogs.
The winner was expected early Tuesday morning under the burled arch in Nome.
King cited severe winds near Safety, the last checkpoint along the nearly 1,000-mile trail, and told officials he had trouble navigating the trail.
On Monday, he left the checkpoint in White Mountain with an hour's lead over Zirkle. But the Iditarod website said a gust of wind blew King and his dog team into driftwood. He was able to untangle the team but couldn't get them moving again.
Winds were gusting about 40 mph and there was blowing snow near Safety.
Officials said King was not quite 4 miles from the checkpoint in Safety, and waited with his team for 2 1/2 hours before he decided to scratch. He contacted a passing snowmobile driver, who took him to the checkpoint to make it official at 11:50 p.m.
King and others were to move his dog team to Safety for the night.
King's scratch leaves the race as another duel between Seavey and Zirkle; Seavey won the first in 2012 by an hour.
If Zirkle were to win, it would be an unlikely finish. She has been the runner-up in the last two races and seemed destined for the same outcome this year until King ran into trouble on the trail.
Zirkle is trying to become the first woman to win the race in 24 years. The last woman to win 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 is the race's only five-time champion.
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 traveled some portions along the western coast of the nation's largest state.
The race began March 2 in Willow with 69 teams. As of Monday evening, 16 mushers had dropped out and one was withdrawn, leaving 52 teams on the trail.
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.
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- Jeff King
- Dallas Seavey