By Martyn Herman
WHISTLER (Reuters) - Latvia was on course for its first Winter Olympic gold medal on Thursday when Martins Dukurs blazed a trail down the Whistler track to lead the men's skeleton competition at the midway point.
On a day when the safety of the course was again questioned following a string of crashes in bobsleigh practice, Dukurs nailed two runs down the treacherous 1,400 meter layout and smashed the track record on his first slide.
His time of 52.32 seconds was a second faster than the previous record and after following that with a marginally slower drive he led Canadian showman Jon Montgomery by 0.26 seconds going into Friday's decisive third and fourth runs.
"Fast. Crazy fast. This track is amazingly fast. It's so difficult but both my runs were pretty solid. Of course there were mistakes -- there are things to fix," Dukurs, whose brother also has a medal shot in sixth, told reporters.
Montgomery, whose helmet is adorned with a mythical thunderbird and a turtle motif after a visit to a shaman last September put him in touch with his wild side, said Dukurs might be difficult to reel in and joked that a lead pipe might by the only answer.
"That might be the only thing to stand in that guy's way between him and a gold," he said.
"He's starting fantastically, driving like a champ. If he beats me tomorrow, he'll have earned it for sure."
Dukurs is coached by his father, former bobsleigh brakeman Dainis, in Sigulda which is home to a crop of track rats, including the Sics brothers, Andris and Juris, who won the silver medal in the luge doubles on Wednesday.
The 25-year-old hopes he can keep his nerve and go one better on Friday.
"I'm physically strong at the moment, so who knows? I hope also mentally I will be strong," he said. "It's difficult but that's the price for the Olympics. If you're last you have no pressure. If you're first you have pressure.
"It's not all about muscles. Mentally I'm ready."
(Editing by Ed Osmond)