Iditarod winner expected Wednesday afternoon

March 17, 2009 

WHITE MOUNTAIN -- With the nearest dog teams 45 miles behind and facing a vicious headwind, Lance Mackey pulled into the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race's penultimate checkpoint Tuesday night nearly assured of his third straight win in the 1,000-mile marathon that started in Anchorage 11 days ago.

The 38-year-old from Fairbanks stopped short of guaranteeing victory but conceded the odds of his crossing first beneath the burled arch in Nome today are high.

"Things would have to blow up on my face," he said. "(Nome) ain't that far. I could walk to Nome in the time it would take for them to catch me."

Hours back along the trail, John Baker of Kotzebue and Sebastian Schnuelle of Whitehorse, Yukon, were resting in the village of Elim.

Since taking the Iditarod lead Thursday shortly before the ghost town that gave the race its name, Mackey's super dogs have been practically flawless.

He arrived here with 15 still in harness, six of which have been on both previous Iditarod winning teams. Of those six, five were in harness for Mackey's four career victories in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race between Whitehorse and Fairbanks.

"I know them better than I know my family," Mackey said.

Mackey did, however, have family here. His mom, Kathie Smith, showed up to surprise her son.

"Hey, hey! Holy (expletive)!" Mackey said when she bear-hugged him.

"Pretty damn cool, huh? Who would've ever dreamt?" he said.

Five years ago, Mackey was an Iditarod also-ran. A 36th place finisher in 2001, he was diagnosed with cancer and underwent surgery after the race. He tried to run in 2002 while in treatment, but had to drop out. He sat out 2003, but came back with the cancer beaten in 2004. He improved only to 24th.

The next year, though, he cracked the top-10. Then came the big breakthrough in 2007 when Mackey became the first musher in history to win the Quest and the Iditarod in the same year. Thirteen of his dogs ran both races to do what was thought impossible.

Doing the impossible once, though, wasn't enough. Mackey repeated the feat in 2008.

"Last year by far was the hardest Iditarod as far as performance level," he said. "This one has been more of a hang-on-and-enjoy-the-ride."

All he's had to do is listen to his dogs.

"They tell me when it's time (to go)," Mackey said.

It was clear at Takotna early on that Mackey had a super team. After completing a 24-hour layover there, his 16 dogs barked and pulled at their tuglines like they were leaving the Willow start line.

"It looked pretty nice," he said. "I had an amazing run to Ophir, grabbed a bale of straw and had every intention of stopping at Don's Cabin.

"I stopped and said, 'What's up?' and the dogs were screaming and barking, so I pulled the hook," Mackey said. "They're telling me what to do. So I dumped the straw, and it's been heaven ever since."

Heaven for him, perhaps, but pretty much hell for many other teams.

Near-hurricane-force winds blew across Norton Bay toward Shaktoolik on Monday night, causing havoc for those trying to cross the ice to the village of Koyuk. The winds likely reached 55 mph, said Baker, who grew up in windy Kotzebue. It was good, he noted, to have dogs accustomed to wind.

Baker left Shaktoolik with Jeff King, Iditarod veteran Aaron Burmeister from Nenana, and 2005 champ Mitch Seavey from Sterling. Those three decided to hunker down at the Brown Lake shelter cabin, about 10 miles outside the village. Baker kept going across the ice.

"We couldn't get any speed so I had to sit there behind the sled and just keep traveling,'' he said.

Mackey described trail conditions on the bay as stressful. Drifts a foot deep caused his team to veer off the marked route, and he kept yelling commands into the wind to try to get them back on course.

The bay wasn't the only place along the Bering Sea coast where the winds blew like a Texas tornado, either. Trail markers were missing at Moses Point near Elim, Mackey said.

"They probably just got blown away," he said. "It was blowing sideways and took everything to concentrate."

Blowing snow forced Mackey to stop every half hour or so to wipe away the accumulation on his dogs' snouts and eyes. But he said the only big problem he encountered was getting out of coastal checkpoints.

"We're a little sluggish," he said. "But it takes just a mile or two to fire up on all cylinders."

In Golovin on Tuesday, Mackey had to untangle a dawdling team a half-dozen times while trying to fend off villagers wanting autographs from one of the state's biggest celebrities.

"Sorry, I don't have time," he told a young boy.

Then the musher put prized lead dog Larry at the front of the team, changed his mind and paused to autograph the boy's down jacket.

"Oh hell, I've got time," he said.

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