Aliy Zirkle leads a loaded field at the 2014 Iditarod heading into the home stretch.
The Alaskan resident won the Gold Coast Award for the second time in three years by reaching Unalakleet, located on the west coast of Alaska on the Bering Sea.
She was greeted by her father at the checkpoint, as shown by ADN Iditarod:
Here's a look at the latest standings as the mushers and their dog teams head into the final push toward the finish line in Nome:
|9||Joar Leifseth Ulsom||Unalakleet|
Zirkle passed up Friday's leader Martin Buser on the route from Nulato to Kaltag but didn't realize it until after she reached the west coast.
Casey Grove of the Anchorage Daily News provides more insight into the situation:
As gold nuggets were poured into a pan -- her prize for being the leader here -- Zirkle said she didn't know she was leading the race until the final eight miles of her run from Kaltag, when she asked a snowmachiner how far ahead Martin Buser was.
"He not in front of you, he's behind you," the snowmachiner told her.
Zirkle has been the runner-up the past two years and is attempting to become the first woman to win this prestigious and grueling race since 1990. For her part, she wants to win but isn't necessarily in it for the glory of becoming only the third woman to do it.
"I know there are a lot of fans who would really like to see a woman win," she said before the race began, via Mackenzie Lobby of ESPN.com. "I'd like it to be me, but I want to win because these are the coolest, bravest dogs out there, not because I'm a woman."
With less than 200 miles of the race still to be contested, she's in fine position to do so.
Jeff King is a four-time Iditarod champion and one of the most highly decorated mushers in this competition. He's also right behind Zirkle and has one more dog working at this point in the proceedings—he's looking strong for a fifth title.
King showed up to the Shaktoolik checkpoint roughly an hour after Zirkle arrived, and he made the run 12 minutes faster than the current leader, according to Kevin Klott of the Alaskan Daily News.
“I feel really, really great,” King said. “I feel like I’m as loose as a cucumber right now.”
He'll need to continue pushing his dogs hard to catch up to Zirkle, who felt pressured to take off from Shaktoolik after just four hours of rest.
Like King, Martin Buser is a four-time winner, and he's been at the top or near the top of the standings for much of the race. After taking an early 24-hour layover, he's seen his lead disappear, as King and Zirkle have charged to the front of the pack.
The 55-year-old musher has maintained a good outlook throughout the race, though. When many were complaining about poor conditions early, Buser took advantage.
"Bare ground isn't all that bad," Buser said at the ceremonial start in Anchorage, where much of the pre-race talk was about challenging trail conditions, as noted by the Alaskan Daily News. "It's the uneven ground that's hard for the runners, the constant bending, that break runners."
His vast experience and cool head will allow Buser to give the leaders a run for their money heading down the home stretch.
Weariness and fatigue are huge obstacles to overcome as the mushers prepare for the final days of competition. With just four more checkpoints to reach before the final run to Nome, it's likely the winner will emerge from those who are currently in the top 10.
In addition to Zirkle, King and Buser, Mitch and Dallas Seavey—the past two winners—are still in a position to pull off a miraculous finish.
The mushers will attempt to balance caution with aggression as the finish line approaches. The final push will provide fans with plenty of drama, and the winner will have overcome plenty of obstacles to claim the title.