UNALAKLEET -- In a display of dominance not seen since the dynasties of Doug Swingley and the late Susan Butcher ruled the Iditarod Trail, the dog team of Lance Mackey powered down off the frozen Kaltag Portage into a warm welcome in this coastal Bering Sea village Sunday afternoon.
Behind him, a couple former winners of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and the newly crowned champ of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race were chasing as hard as they could, but losing ground instead of gaining.
"We've still got a long ways to go,'' Mackey said immediately upon arrival here. "It ain't over yet. I'm going to pretend like they're five minutes behind me.''
More than 200 miles of bitterly cold and windy coast still stand between Mackey and the finish line in Nome, but a third straight victory in the 1,000-mile race from Anchorage to Nome is almost in his grasp.
He is in control here the way another cancer survivor named Lance -- the one named Armstrong -- used to always be in control as the final days of the Tour de France moved toward Paris.
Mackey alluded to as much in a chat with a reporter in the checkpoint.
"I've been thinking a lot about what's going on,'' he said.
"What is it you're thinking?''
"What color truck I want,'' Mackey said.
A new Dodge Ram pickup and $69,000 await the winner of the Iditarod in Nome. It's not impossible that Mackey could be caught by the chase teams of Quest champ Sebastian Schnuelle from Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada, or former champs Jeff King from Denali Park or Mitch Seavey from Sterling, but that appears unlikely.
Despite tough trail conditions early in the race, Mackey's team has showed no hint of tiring. The dogs were faster Sunday coming over the portage in wind and minus-30 temperatures than they were Saturday marching up the Yukon.
"They're in perfect shape,'' Mackey said. "The vet (in Kaltag) said the only thing wrong was a few broken toenails. I had to laugh hysterically at that.''
Mackey knows his dog team a little more intimately.
"They have some swollen feet,'' he said. "I have three females in heat. My two 3-year-old leaders don't want to stay lined out in front. They keep running into the swing dogs.''
Running at the front of an Iditarod team is a demanding job. It takes a special kind of canine athlete to perform there, especially when the going gets tough. Mackey, fortunately, has the luxury of having one such dog he can swap out with those young leaders if need be: Larry, a former golden harness winner.
"Larry's strong,'' said Mackey, who had expressed some doubts about the dog's fitness going into this Iditarod. "Even if he wasn't, he still wouldn't let me down. I'm so proud of that dog.''
He should be. Larry has led Mackey to the top of the mushing world.
Larry was at the front when Mackey in 2007 did what was thought to be impossible in winning the 1,000-mile Quest and the 1,000-mile Iditarod all in the space of a month. Larry was there when Mackey demonstrated last year that the Quest-Iditarod double was no fluke. And Larry is there now, along with 14 of the dogs with which Mackey started the race north from Anchorage March 7.
That is an usually large number for a front-running team to have still in harness this far into the race. Mushers begin with 16 but usually some dogs are dropped at checkpoints to be sent home because they've tired just enough to be slowing the entire team ever so slightly.
Mackey dropped a two-year-old named Chucko along the Yukon River for that reason, but he's hoping to get most of the rest of the team to Nome.
"It's extra work and effort,'' he admitted.
Tending to the swollen feet of a bunch of dogs is more work than tending to a few, and females in heat always cause problems for a musher.
"I don't need 15,'' he added. "But if they're up for it, I'm taking all 15 to Nome. They deserve it. How cool is that? I'm stoked.''
The 38-year-old race leader was expected to rest here until shortly before the arrival of the first of the teams behind him. He seemed to be enjoying what has been for him a unique Iditarod.
Since grabbing the halfway price of $3,000 in gold nuggets at the ghost town of Iditarod, Mackey has been in control.
After leaving Iditarod, he picked up an eight-course meal and a $3,500 check from the Millennium Alaskans Hotel for being first to the Yukon River, and officials from Wells Fargo back were on hand to great him with another $2,500 in gold here for being first to the coast.
"That's awesome,'' Mackey said, holding a bag of nuggets. "I love gold.
"I've never been here first. I've always been coming in here 45 minutes behind Jeff (King). So, by the looks of it, Jeff won't even be here when I leave. I'm not even going to let him see me.''
Mackey did, however, plan to stay long enough to sit down and sample the local cuisine.
"I'm ready for a burger in town,'' he said. "Oh I'm sore. My feet are sore. (I haven't been) holding anything back.''