NOME, Alaska (AP) — A storybook ending was in the works early Tuesday as Aliy Zirkle was closing in on her first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race championship.
Zirkle, 44, was the first musher to reach the checkpoint at Safety, 22 miles from the finish line.
It would be an unlikely finish for Zirkle, who has been the runner-up in the last two races and seemed destined for the same outcome this year.
Four-time champion Jeff King had an hour's lead on Zirkle and seemed to be headed to a record-tying fifth win. But late Monday evening, his GPS unit didn't indicate any movement for hours as Zirkle steadily gained on him before eventually passing him just outside Safety, on the Bering Sea coast.
Zirkle is trying to become the first woman to win the race in 24 years.
Mushers were greeted by high winds, up to 40 mph, and blowing snow in that stretch of the trail.
According to the Iditarod website, it appears a wind gust blew King and his dog team off the trail into driftwood. He was able to untangle the team but couldn't get them moving again.
Meanwhile, it appears the trail and conditions continuing into Nome only get worse, and Zirkle could be waiting out the storm in Safety.
The winner was expected under the burled arch early Tuesday, with mushers on what appears to be a record pace despite poor trail conditions.
The 2012 champion, Dallas Seavey, was running third, and his father, defending champion Mitch Seavey, was fourth.
King and Zirkle have been leap-frogging each other in the latter portion of the race.
"We were flying through there," King told the Iditarod website after Sunday's run between the checkpoints in Elim and Koyuk.
"I really thought I would open up a big space between me and Aliy," he said. But he quickly added that, as he has done before, "I have underestimated the speed of her team and what she can get out of it."
He believed he was far ahead of her, but then saw her headlamp near the village of Golovin.
Zirkle remained optimistic, telling the website: "I know I have a lot fans rooting for me. Believe me, I am trying."
King had pulled into the checkpoint at White Mountain nearly a full hour ahead of Zirkle. Mushers had to take an eight-hour rest at White Mountain before making the last push for Nome.
The last woman to win the race 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, of Two Rivers, is the race's only five-time champion. If King wins, he'll also become the Iditarod's oldest champion. That record is held by Mitch Seavey, who was 53 when he won last year.
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.