Into the homestretch, odds favor Mackey

March 15, 2010 

Mushing into a biting Arctic headwind, the top three teams in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race crossed the Norton Sound ice in the dark early this morning.

Little changed as the they reached the twinkling lights of Koyuk, just 170 miles from the finish line in Nome.

• Three-time defending champion Lance Mackey of Fairbanks made the 50-mile crossing from Shaktoolik 14 minutes faster than Jeff King of Denali Park, extending his lead to 74 minutes. Mackey left Koyuk at 5:58 a.m. after a 3 hour, 10 minute rest.

• Yukon Quest champion Hans Gatt was four minutes faster than Mackey, pulling his team of a dozen dogs within 67 minutes of King.

"You know, we've been setting quite a pace and the dogs do need to lay down for a few hours," King told the Iditarod Insider in Shaktoolik. "So my dogs are going to lay down for a few hours regardless."

But the minus-15 temperatures and a north wind gusting up to 15 mph were sapping everyone.

"My poor toes and fingers are cold enough," Mackey said in Koyuk. Cancer treatment has left him with poor circulation in his hands and feet, which are prone to getting chilled.

So as the final two days of the 37th Iditarod start playing out, some race fans wondered how common a come-from-behind victory is in the world's premier mushing marathon.

Not very.

In the past nine years, the race leader into Unalakleet was first under the burled arch on Front Street six times. Mackey, in fact, owns two of the three comebacks -- the most memorable two years ago when he pulled into Unalakleet 90 minutes behind King and still managed to win.

The previous year, Mackey was 45 minutes behind King and passed the four-time champion on the way to Nome.

Other than that, the only other come-from-behind victory was a relatively inconsequential one-minute disadvantage Mitch Seavey overcame on his way to victory in 2004.

And while Mackey has victimized King repeatedly in recent years, King owns one of biggest come-from-behind races in last decade. Six years ago, he was well back in 10th place at Kaltag, more than nine hours out of the lead. Over the final 260 miles, King mounted a charge that pulled him all the way up to second place, about two hours behind Seavey, the eventual champion.

Whether King's team can mount a similar charge this year was looking increasingly doubtful as Mackey -- and now Gatt -- posted faster run times on the final quarter of the 1,000-mile ultramarathon. Holding onto second place could prove tough enough.

"I don't think you do anything to get the lead back," King said. "You play your dog team the best you can and see how it works out."

In any case, the two champions with seven victories between them have provided memorable moments on the trail in recent years.

"Lance and I have been parked in these same two spots a couple of times," King said in Shaktoolik. "It's fun to race a nice guy. He's very good at what he does."

Reach reporter Mike Campbell at or 257-4329.

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