Noelle Pikus-Pace currently in 2nd

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- Lizzy Yarnold is halfway to the Olympic gold medal. Noelle Pikus-Pace is right on her heels.

What, you expected something else?

The World Cup leaders all season are the leaders again halfway through the women's skeleton competition at the Sochi Olympics, with Britain's Yarnold leading Pikus-Pace by 0.44 seconds after Thursday's first two runs at the Sanki Sliding Center.

Yarnold, this season's World Cup champion, finished two runs in 1 minute, 56.89 seconds. Pikus-Pace, of Eagle Mountain, Utah, was second in 1:57.33, and Russia's Elena Nikitina was a slightly surprising third, another 0.11 seconds off the pace.

And Friday's final two runs should be loaded with drama.

It's the last time Pikus-Pace will compete before retirement, as she looks to finish her career with an Olympic medal. Yarnold will try to give Britain its second straight gold in the event after Amy Williams won at Vancouver in 2010. Nikitina will have the support of the home crowd, and sitting in fourth is Katie Uhlaender of Breckenridge, Colo., still very much in the chase for a podium trip.

Australian officials protested Thursday's results, saying the Russians had an unfair advantage by using their own push track before the race. The protest was denied.

Yarnold was 0.25 seconds better than Pikus-Pace in Run 1, then 0.19 seconds faster her second time down, with virtually that entire cushion directly attributed to the simple fact that the British star is much better at the start.

Pikus-Pace's starts are among the slowest in the field and that won't be changing, but what she relies on is her knack to build speed by using her driving skills -- probably the world's best -- as she gets down the track.

Example: Thursday's second heat. She was behind Uhlaender around the midpoint, then a quarter-second clear of her teammate again by the finish.

But catching Yarnold will be far more difficult.

Yarnold and Pikus-Pace both won four times this winter on tour. Pikus-Pace would have medaled in every race if she wasn't disqualified from the season-opener in Calgary over a dispute about how much tape was permissible on the handle of her sled. Their consistency atop the results was unmatched, and the Olympics looked to serve as the ultimate tiebreaker to their rivalry this season.

So far, advantage Yarnold.

Pikus-Pace and Yarnold were the first two sliders down the track in the opening heat, and for a while it seemed like everyone else was waging a separate competition for the bronze. Pikus-Pace opened with a run of 58.68 seconds, Yarnold followed with a 58.43 clocking, and none of the next nine sliders could come close to matching their times.

Nikitina changed that in a hurry.

Only 13th in the World Cup rankings this season -- but having benefitted from who-knows-how-many runs down the Sochi track, even skipping the final race on tour this winter to get more training time in before the Olympics -- she posted a first-run time of 58.48 seconds, passing Pikus-Pace and putting pressure on Yarnold.

Home ice advantage clearly was paying off. It was the first time Nikitina posted a better head-to-head time than Pikus-Pace in their last 20 competition runs together, going back to late in the 2012-13 season.

But Pikus-Pace was better in the final run Thursday, moving back to second, and setting up what could be a wild run for medals on Friday night.