Thirteen minutes is all that stands between Mitch Seavey and Aliy Zirkle, the top two teams in this year’s Iditarod. Seavey’s team took just over 90 minutes longer than Zirkle’s to reach the checkpoint. But Jeff King’s team is still within striking distance after arriving third. Teams are resting for a mandatory eight hours. It’s an unusual year when the Iditarod comes down to the last long run from White Mountain.
It was after 5 a.m. before a light was finally spotted as it rounded a bend along the Fish River. Locals at the village of White Mountain ring the church bell when the first Iditarod musher comes through their community.
The light belonged to Mitch Seavey, who arrived visibly tired and ready for his eight hour mandatory rest.
Thirteen minutes later, Aily Zirkle pulled into the checkpoint, jumping up and down on the back of her sled. She was clearly pleased with her run.
“Lucky number 13,” she said.
This is Zirkle’s 13th Iditarod. She’s running a team of dogs who came off the Yukon Quest last month.
“Holy cow, there are some hills back there, but the Yukon Quest dogs know how to climb hills, I’ll tell you that much. So do Yukon Quest mushers,” Zirkle said.
Teams run along a tough portage trail out of Elim. They climb over a steep hill called little McKinley. Zirkle’s hands are reportedly covered in blisters after using her ski pole to help her team climb over a series of hills. Zirkle knew Seavey was ahead, but she didn’t know by how much. She says she knew he wasn’t pushing much.
“You can look in the snow and see only every once in a while his footprints,” Zirkle said.
When Jeff King pulled into White Mountain he said whoever was running in front of him worked hard to stay ahead.
“I could tell one of them were working so hard going over the hills, there’s footprints and I just went ‘Oh my God!’ Every hill had footprints right next to each other,” King said.
Over a heaping plate of lasagna in the checkpoint, King said he still planned to win the race. He says running as the rabbit is nerve wracking, but he gets a kick out of chasing down the competition.