NOME, Alaska -- This year's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is shaping up to be an exciting sprint to the finish with 2004 champion Mitch Seavey leading the race, but last year's second-place finisher close and on the move with a faster team.
The leaders were just 77 miles from the finish in the 1,000-mile race from Anchorage to Nome early Tuesday. Seavey, 53, pulled into the White Mountain checkpoint at 5:11 a.m., just 13 minutes ahead of the 43-year-old Zirkle. Four-time champion Jeff King, who had been leading the race, was in third place with a team that had slowed considerably.
Mushers are required to rest their teams for eight hours in White Mountain. From there, teams go to Safety, where the leaders likely will take no rest before heading to Nome in hopes of winning. This year's champion is expected to reach the frontier town on Alaska's wind-pummeled coast late Tuesday or early Wednesday.
Others were closing in, including Ray Redington Jr., the grandson of race co-founder Joe Redington Sr. who was in fourth place. Defending champion Dallas Seavey, Mitch Seavey's 25-year-old son, was in fifth place.
Nome favorite Aaron Burmeister was in sixth place behind Seavey as he raced toward his hometown.
If he were to win the Iditarod, one local official said, it could be pandemonium. The "place would come unglued," said Richard Beneville, the vice president of the Nome Chamber of Commerce.
Race spokeswoman Erin McLarnon is calling this year's race one of the tightest in years.
Front-runners began traveling north along the frozen Bering Sea Coast on Sunday as they jockeyed for the front of the line.
King snatched the lead earlier Monday from Seavey, leaving the Koyuk checkpoint first.
King left Koyuk just six minutes after arriving, then camped out for a while eight miles from the checkpoint. His team began moving again late morning.
"You must be having fun," a local said in an Iditarod.com video as the 57-year-old veteran prepared to leave Koyuk.
"Does it show?" King said.
Seavey fed his team as King headed out.
Seavey had been leading since Sunday and beat King to Koyuk by 34 minutes. He rested his team then left three hours and two minutes after King.
"Only one thing to do," Seavey said in an Iditarod.com video. "I can't make speed without resting."
The race began March 2 with 66 teams at a ceremonial start in Anchorage. The competitive start began the following day in Willow and has since changed leaders several times.
Five mushers have scratched. A sixth, Canadian Gerry Willomitzer, was withdrawn Sunday after losing a dog that was later found.
The first musher to reach Nome will win $50,400 and a new 2013 Dodge Ram pickup truck. The rest of the $600,000 purse will be split among the next 29 mushers to cross the finish line.
As teams push toward Nome, the town of 3,700 was bustling with anticipation.
Volunteers erected the famed burled arch on Front Street, a block off the sea, on Sunday. Monday morning, volunteers put up the finish banner that hangs above the arch.
Inside the city's small convention center, which doubles as race headquarters, banners with each musher's name were being hung from the rafters by volunteers working with Alaska Missions including Shannon Scoggins, 22, of Stephenville, Texas.
Her group will spend the rest of the week caring for the canine participants at dog lots on the outskirts of town.
"It'll be a once-in-a-lifetime chance," she said. "We're excited about that."
In Nome, McLarnon said the race was shaping up to have an exciting finish with so many front-runners clustered together.
But will it match the 1978 mad dash down Front Street that left Dick Mackey as the winner with one second to spare over Rick Swenson, who went on to become the Iditarod's only five-time champion?
"You know, it very well could be" McLarnon said. "The way the things are looking right now, it could be one of those close ones."