Mackey hours away from Nome, Iditarod history

March 18, 2009 

Lance Mackey's dog team was trotting toward Nome this morning, a third consecutive Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race firmly in its paws.

Mackey is 22 miles from his third consecutive victory in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. He pulled into the final checkpoint of Safety at 8:40 this morning and left eight minutes later.

He traveled 8.5 mph between White Mountain and Safety. If he continues at that pace, he should reach the finish line in Nome just before noon.

"They're superstars," he said of his dogs before leaving White Mountain.

A third consecutive championship on the year he was inducted into the Iditarod Hall of Fame will forever link Mackey's name with two giants of the sport, four-time champs Doug Swingley of Montana and the late Susan Butcher.

Both also captured three straight Iditarods.

Butcher's reign came in the late 1980s, and like Mackey she had had both narrow victories and runaways. After scratching in 1985 when a moose stomped what many considered one of Butcher's finest teams, she nipped Joe Garnie by 55 minutes the following year and then took the measure of Rick Swenson back to back -- by more than four hours in 1987 and a whopping 14 hours a year later.

Joe Runyan interrupted Butcher's domination in 1989 with a narrow 65-minute victory, briefly quieting the much-repeated refrain "Alaska, where men are men and women win the Iditarod." Absent Runyan's victory, Butcher would have won five in a row; she turned the tables on him the following year.

Swingley's streak was from 1999 to 2001 and was perhaps even more dominant. He beat three mushers racing this year -- Big Lake's Martin Buser in 1999 by more than eight hours, Kasilof's Paul Gebhardt in 2000 by more than five hours and Willow's Linwood Fiedler in 2001 by nearly eight hours.

No musher has ever won four straight Iditarods.

To claim No. 3, Mackey needs only to make it to Nome.

"I could walk to Nome in the time it would take them to catch me," he said Tuesday.

This Iditarod was unlike last year's, when Mackey had to use guile and sneak out of a final checkpoint before a snoozing Jeff King awoke to secure victory.

But one thing that remained the same was the quality of his dog team. Of the 15 dogs in harness leaving White Mountain, six had 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," he said.

While Mackey remained comfortably ahead Tuesday, it was Mother Nature that was controlling the race. Sebastian Schnuelle and John Baker were still hours behind the leader -- but ahead of a storm that trapped other mushers farther back on the trail.

Thirteen mushers, including four-time champions Jeff King and Martin Buser, were holed up at the checkpoint in Shaktoolik on Tuesday, stopped by 40 mph winds and a wind chill driving temperatures to more than 50 below.

But by this morning, conditions had eased slightly and a group of a half-dozen was out of Elim and back on the trail and headed for White Mountain.

That group was led Aaron Burmeister of Nenana, out at 3:09 a.m.

Right behind him was one of the surprises of the 37th Iditarod. Young Dallas Seavey, 21, was in fifth place, leaving Elim at the same time as his dad, 2004 champion Mitch Seavey.

Dallas seemed a lock for the Most Improved Musher Award -- his previous best was 41st in 2007 -- and another success story for the Seavey family that has run this race for three generations. Clearly, the grit that won Dallas Seavey a state wrestling championship when he was at Skyview High was translating well onto the trail.

Another family showing well in the top 10 was the Smyths -- with Cim out of Elim in seventh place and brother Ramey surging up to ninth.

But those successes among the top 10 couldn't overshadow Mackey's run, as difficult as the end has become. He called the run from Shaktoolik to Koyuk "brutal."

Mackey barely stopped in the checkpoint of Golovin, his old hometown where his father, Dick Mackey, winner of the 1978 Iditarod, once managed the village fish cooperative.

"Welcome home, Lance," several in the crowd yelled, as Mackey reached the town of about 160 people who live on an exposed spit of land.

Mackey stopped his team briefly to put Larry, the 9-year-old dog that led him into Nome last year, in lead position.

"Come on, Larry," he said as the team began moving again and made a right turn on the trail leading toward the White Mountain checkpoint.

Meanwhile, Schnuelle said the 48-mile run Tuesday from Koyuk to Elim was a dream compared to what he had gone through with his dog team the day before. At times the wind was blowing so hard out of Shaktoolik that his team moved sideways.

After two of his lead dogs sat down on him, he put an ornery dog named Finn into lead to get them to the next checkpoint.

"I sweet-talked him more than I've ever sweet-talked a dog," Schnuelle said.

As for the other 15 mushers getting stuck either in Shaktoolik or the shelter cabin, he said, "I love it."

"Sometimes you have to take a risk and I hope it pays off. It does look that way," Schnuelle said.

He said at this point he doesn't care if he comes in second or third. He won't be battling Baker for position. But he also won't let the ones who stayed behind get in front of him now, he said.

"I will stay here as long as I can without being caught from behind," Schnuelle said as he placed large bales of straw around his dog team to act as a windbreak in the checkpoint.

"First we had snow and wind. Now we have wind and wind," he said.

Baker said he left Shaktoolik just behind King at about noon Monday. The two decided to travel together out of concerns for each other's safety. But he said they were within a mile of the shelter cabin when "there was a great roar of wind and the sled jerked and he (Jeff) was gone."

Baker said he hated to see King go.

"I was thinking I wanted to turn back too," he said.

But he didn't and arrived in Elim in third place.

Baker, who comes from Kotzebue on the Bering Sea coast, said he trains his dogs for conditions just like those that arose this year in Shaktoolik.

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