ANVIK -- Curled up in a pile of straw and soaking up the late afternoon sun on Friday alongside a dog named Battel, Lance Mackey, defending champ in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, offered an apology to the 16 canine buddies who've pulled him to the front of the race again this year.
It was not their fault, he assured them, that the lead grabbed in the ghost town of Iditarod a day earlier looked about to evaporate. It was their boss's fault.
On the short, 25-mile jump from the tiny village of Shageluk over to this community on the banks of the Yukon River, Mackey fell asleep on the runners of his dog sled. The result was that his team got lost. He figured it out when he woke up and had to make them turn around to retrace their steps.
"Not cool,'' said the 38-year-old musher from Fairbanks. "I broke their spirit.''
What should have been a 2 1/2-hour jaunt between the villages to meet a welcoming crowd in Anvik became a 4 1/2-hour march. The only good part for Mackey, who has won the race the last two years, and his team was that they still arrived here first.
The Anvik church bell, which rings to welcome the first team to town, rang for them, and they got to enjoy the fruits of victory for being first to the Yukon River at a little after noon.
A chef from the Millennium Alaskan Hotel in Anchorage was on hand to cook Mackey an eight-course gourmet lunch and award him $3,500. The dogs got tasty slabs of prime meat, as they do at every checkpoint, and a long rest.
All teams are required to take an eight-hour break somewhere along the Yukon, and Mackey chose to give it to his bunch here. He spent his time wondering how much of his lead had been lost to the nap.
Behind him, four-time champ Jeff King from Denali Park; 2009 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race champ Sebastian Schnuelle from Whitehorse, Yukon; and surprise Iditarod front-runner Aaron Burmeister from Nenana were hot on the champ's trail.
"Those boys are going to be coming through here soon,'' Mackey said. "I don't know if I've busted away from the pack at all. I'm sitting here by myself, but that don't mean squat."
By supper time, word had spread that the 53-year-old King was close to the village. Mackey waited for him outside the checkpoint, holding a cup of coffee heated in a microwave. The time was 7:36 p.m. Mackey had about 36 minutes to serve on that mandatory eight-hour stop.
"I can't just stand here and pass coffee to (King),'' he said, handing the cup off to another. "Just tell him it's from me, and that I didn't put laxatives in it. But I wanted to.''
With that, Mackey ducked into the checkpoint to start getting ready to leave. Minutes later, a helicopter videotaping the race came whop, whop, whopping overhead. On the ground, King pulled in behind 15 dogs. He asked race judge Art Church for a box of batteries that had been mailed to the checkpoint. Church ran inside to find them. King jumped off his sled, ran to the front and swapped the positions of a couple of dogs.
Church returned empty-handed. Obviously frustrated, King told him to just send the batteries on up the trail to Grayling, then grabbed the cup of coffee being offered.
"For me?" King asked. "Did Lance give me that?
"It's cold. But it's very nice of him."
And with that, he pulled up his snow hook and ordered his team up the river into the sunset.
"I'm outta here!" he said. "I'm about to be in the lead."
Maybe. Then again, maybe not.
King still needs to do his mandatory eight-hour stop on the Yukon, and though his team gained some time on Mackey's on the run in from Shageluk, the 45-minute difference between their travel times was not all that much.
Schnuelle and Burmeister went through here minutes after King and just in front of Mackey. But they, too, still need to make that required eight-hour stop.
"We still have a half of a race to go,'' Mackey said. "It ain't over."
Still, he couldn't help but regret the unplanned nap. Coming into Shageluk, he said, "I was really having a hard time staying awake. I was having such a hard time I thought about napping for a couple of hours.''
He decided instead to press on and grab some sleep during the mandatory stop.
"Against my better judgment, I took off,'' he added. "Outside of town, the trail goes off the (Innoko) river and into the trees. Apparently I was sleeping because we just kept going up the river. When I woke up, I was on this slough. I wasn't in the river anymore. There were just a few snowmachine tracks.''
Brain fogged from lack of sleep, thinking he might still be on the trail, Mackey let his team roll on.
"We went on for 20 minutes,'' he said. "I didn't see any trail markers. We went for another 10 minutes and I confirmed I hadn't seen any.''
By then, Mackey was pretty certain he was lost, but not positive.
"I started thinking about the last time I was in this area (in 2007),'' he said. "We were in a slough and gone. There weren't any markers there either.''
So he decided to go on yet another five minutes and hope the trail spit him out onto the Yukon.
"It didn't happen,'' he said. "So I spun around, and we headed back for town. We were just flying. I kept thinking to myself, 'I hope this is an obvious turn.' The last marker I'd remembered seeing was just outside of town. (It was) a fence of brush across the river where they had set a net.''
Mackey said he went almost all the way back to that point before finding the trail.
"I was just about at that fence, and there was an obvious turn,'' he said. "As soon as I turned (the dogs) back around, it just took their spirit out, their speed and their trust. They start wondering what the hell I'm doing back there. For two hours afterwards, they were looking over their shoulders.''
Mackey was not, however, about to give up.
"We're going to get there,'' he told his dogs. "Hang tough.''
Find Daily News sports reporter Kevin Klott at adn.com/contact/kklott or 257-4335.