March 10, 2014 Updated: March 10, 2014 at 12:27 pm
NOME, Alaska — Two Alaska mushers arrived Monday morning at the second-to-last checkpoint of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race: a four-time champion and a competitor seeking to become only the third woman to win the race.
Jeff King was leading Aliy Zirkle by less than an hour as they pulled in to White Mountain, about 80 miles from the finish in Nome. Teams must take an eight-hour layover at the checkpoint.
King reached White Mountain at 7:02 a.m., while Zirkle arrived at 7:59 a.m.
King, 58, of Denali, last won the Iditarod in 2006 and is trying to be only the second musher to win five races.
Zirkle, a 44-year-old from Two Rivers, has finished in second place in the nearly 1,000-mile race for the past two years. The last woman to win the Iditarod was the late Susan Butcher in 1990.
Zirkle was leading Sunday afternoon when she arrived at the Norton Bay village of Koyuk one minute ahead of King.
Other front-runners Monday were 2012 champion Dallas Seavey, who left Elim at 2:52 a.m., followed at 4:40 a.m. by four-time champion Martin Buser. Defending champion Mitch Seavey, father of Dallas Seavey, was next out of Elim, departing at 4:47 a.m., followed at 5 a.m. by veteran musher Sonny Lindner.
As King attempts to hold them off in the last stages of the race, the town famous for the finish line is preparing for their arrival. The racers are expected to begin arriving in Nome no later than Tuesday.
The finish line banner was set to be hung Monday morning on Front Street in Nome with help from the local electric utility.
On Sunday, city crews moved the actual finish line, the burled arch, into place, and public works employees 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 in Nome is to drug test the dogs. "I enjoy the people. It's like family now."
Scott Hughes was helping hammer in the final nails at the finish line Sunday afternoon. 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 in Nome hovered slightly above zero Sunday, which brought clear skies and brilliant sunshine. Snowfall has been light this winter in the frontier town of nearly 3,700, so the city has been stockpiling snow, which was being trucked to Front Street for the final stretch to the finish line.
What little snow was on the ground, along with the cooler temperatures, were welcomed by fan Nina Cross of Brandon, Miss. She attended the start of the race last year in Anchorage, fell in love with the event and decided she needed to see the finish in person, too.
She said she remembers as a child reading about the 1925 serum rum by sled dog teams to deliver diphtheria serum to Nome after an outbreak.
"Nome was this mystical destination, and it never occurred to me that I would get there some day. So, for me to be here is a real event in my life," she said.
And she loves the dogs.
"Any dogs that can laugh when they run, with their tongues hanging out, they got my heart right now," said Cross, who just learned about the volunteer programs and already is making plans to be back in Nome next year.
The race began March 2 in Willow with 69 teams. As of Monday morning, 16 mushers had scratched, leaving 53 teams on the trail, which was marked by long stretches of bare and rocky ground that made for an icy, treacherous trail in the early part of the race.
The first to reach Nome receives $50,000 and a new truck. The 29 teams after that win cash prizes decreasing on a sliding scale. All other teams finishing the race receive $1,049.