WHITE MOUNTAIN -- Lance Mackey left here just at 4:43 a.m. today, headed for Nome in the final miles of what is looking increasingly likely to be his fourth straight Iditarod victory.
In the race’s 38-year history, no other musher has accomplished the feat. And while there were 77 miles left to race, Mackey’s closest followers said only a major mishap could derail him now.
“My dogs are all fat, they’re going to waddle out of here like a bunch of pigs,” Mackey said this morning, packing his sled and moving leaders Rev and Maple to the front of the team.
The Fairbanks musher left White Mountain, a forced eight-hour pit stop, with 11 dogs and a two-hour head start on Canadian Hans Gatt, who left the checkpoint at 6:40 a.m. Third-place Jeff King, of Denali Park, pulled out at 7:06 a.m.
As Mackey’s sled disappeared into the early morning darkness, Gatt and King’s teams slept, parked along the banks of the frozen Fish River. Only a disaster could stop the defending champ, Gatt said. “I’m more worried about Jeff catching me than me catching Mackey.”
Mackey estimated the trip to Nome would take around 10 hours, putting him at the finish line in midafternoon.
Before the run to Nome, the top Iditarod mushers spent a leisurely night here at the village hall –- commandeered for the week by Iditarod veterinarians, officials and volunteers.
Mackey had arrived mobbed by autograph seekers, icicles thick as crayons swinging from his mustache. Warm weather had bogged his dogs down earlier in the day – as King had hoped – but Mackey had expected as much.
“I didn’t ask them to do anything special. I just let them cruise at their own speed, which is about as slow as drool,” he said. “But we were moving while other people were stopped.”
Mackey was one step closer to a Dodge truck, the winning prize, along a $50,000 paycheck. “I’m stoked,” he said. “I couldn’t be happier.”
Arriving late last night inside the checkpoint building -- a wood-paneled collection of offices that will crowd dozens of mushers and volunteers over the course of the week – Mackey hunted for an iPod charger.
His Iditarod soundtrack ranges from classical to reggae to rap, he said. “I have three teenage kids and a wife and a Jamaican (musher Newton Marshall) in my house. And they’ve all taken turns putting something on there.”
Mackey’s father, 1978 Iditarod winner Dick Mackey, met him at the checkpoint dinner table, where the younger Mackey piled a paper plate with fried chicken, mashed potatoes and two hot dogs slathered in mayonnaise.
The Mackey men talked strategy. Dick had been studying race statistics and couldn’t see how Gatt could catch his son.
Mackey listened, a knee brace pulled over his long underwear, his feet raw and fingers stained from a week on the trail. A rubber band held his hair in a tight braid.
“When he is faster than you, he’s about 0.8 miles an hour faster. And if that’s the case, all you’ve got (to do) is to do your thing,” Dick said. “At this point, it’s your race to lose.”
DRUG TESTING BEGINS
Across the hall from the chow room is the race’s new drug-testing headquarters – a city supply room filled with file containers and cable TV boxes.
Anchorage-based Work Safe, a company known for testing potential workers for employers, is donating the drug-testing services as the Iditarod began checking mushers for illegal substances for the first time this year.
As mushers arrive in White Mountain, they’re being pulled aside for testing. Mackey was the first.
A throat cancer survivor who once had a finger removed after it was rendered useless by nerve damage, Mackey holds a medical marijuana card. He has admitted to using pot on the trail in the past, and felt singled out by the race’s new drug-testing policy, saying it was spurred by jealous competitors. Race officials said the effort was prompted by other Iditarod finishers and conceded he wasn’t off point.
Mackey said before the race he wouldn’t use pot or the marijuana pills prescribed to him. “I don’t think it’s going to show a damn thing,” he said of the test.
The samples will be flown to Spokane, Wash., for analysis with results known by the mushers banquet later this month, said Work Safe general manager Don Bisby.
King called the testing a waste of money Monday night. “If it’s originated because of somebody smoking pot, I really think it’s stupid,” he said.
DINNER OF CHAMPIONS
After feeding his dogs, King sat at the dinner table eating lasagna, a seat away from Hans Gatt. Gatt’s hair poked in every direction.
The Whitehorse musher won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest in February and is one of several top Iditarod contenders to compete in both races.
It used to be common knowledge you couldn’t win the grueling Quest and the Iditarod in the same year. Then Mackey did it twice.
One theory is that the Quest “hardens” dogs' bodies for the race to Nome. Mackey is racing the Iditarod with six Quest dogs. Gatt brought 13 of his Quest winners to the race.
King asked Gatt about the success of Quest dogs: “You think it could be the training to go slow as much as the metabolic thing?”
“I don’t train slow,” Gatt said at the dinner table.
“You don’t train slow?”
“But, you ran the Quest.”
“The Quest was the fastest 1,000-mile race ever,” Gatt said .
Earlier in the night, Gatt had set out bowls of food for his team, only to find at least some of the dogs looking at him groggily, ignoring them.
He rubbed the head of a blond dog named Newman. “Hey Newmie … feed you later, huh?”
“I guess you guys are too tired,” he said to the dogs.
As the sport’s premier event, the Iditarod is poised for a new round of stars. Mackey has said he doesn’t want to do both the Quest and the Iditarod again in the same year anymore, King says he likely won’t run the race again, and Gatt is done with 1,000-mile races, he says.
“I just can’t get excited about it anymore, so why do it?” he said.
Mackey, meantime, has often been a dynamo at checkpoints even as he describes himself as beat up and “wimpier” than in years past.
Before the race, he talked cautiously about being happy with a top 10 finish. Until he reached Ruby – roughly halfway through the race – Mackey figured he could make the top five, but it’d be a struggle.
“I’m realistic. And I know there’s a hell of a lot of good dog teams in this race with exceptional drivers who are very focused and determined,” Mackey said. “Hans Gatt just whipped my butt in the Yukon Quest.”
But a flash decision to push through Kaltag while King rested gave him a lead that he only extended on Monday.
Last night Mackey figured it would take him about 10 hours to reach Nome – putting him across the finish line in midafternoon and adding another chapter to Iditarod record books.
His message for Nome this morning: “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”