NOME -- Pumping his fist as he approached the finish line, Lance Mackey won the Iditarod Trial Sled Dog Race on Tuesday afternoon, becoming the first musher to take four straight.
Mackey, 39, and his team of 11 dogs passed under the burled arch at 2:59 p.m., becoming the second musher in race history to finish in less than 9 days -- by just 51 seconds.
"I had seven dogs who would go to the end of the earth for me, and nine more who would try," Mackey said at the finish line. "I've got a lot of young superstars and a bright future with them.
"I'll probably be back next year," he added. "I don't see why not. I'm a little beat up, though. I can only be so tough so long."
The feat earned him a check for $50,400 and a new Dodge truck.
Hans Gatt of Whitehorse finished second at 4:04 p.m., and Jeff King of Denali Park was headed for a third-place finish late this afternoon.
Under a bluebird sky, Mackey's dogs trotted down Front Street while the big afternoon crowd surged forward, narrowing the slot of snow through which he could pass.
"I drew the right (bib) number, 49, representing the whole state of Alaska and the people who believed in me," he said. "It was an amazing welcome as usual. People were cheering as if it was my first one."
Two of Mackey's stalwart dogs, Rev, who's missing his left ear tip, and Maple, sat with Mackey under the burled arch, adorned with collars of yellow roses. Mackey draped his arms around them and planted a kiss on their fur.
"They may not be the fastest team in this race," Mackey said. "But they've got the biggest hearts."
The Mackey family now owns six titles -- one by his father Dick in 1978, one by his half-brother Rick in 1983 and Lance's four.
Only four other mushers have that many. Rick Swenson of Two Rivers has five. Mackey, King, Martin Buser of Big Lake, Swingley and Butcher are the others.
Lance's career began slowly with a 36th place finish in 2001, his first race.
Cancer turned his life upside down three days after the end of that race.
Doctors determined that the piercing headaches he had been experiencing for were were due to a squamous cell carcinoma growing rapidly in his neck. To save Mackey's life, doctors cut out muscle, lymph nodes, the internal jugular vein and several nerves.
Twelve weeks of post-surgery radiation follow, but the radiation ate away at his jawbone, costing him 10 teeth. He also has limited mobility in his right arm and radiation treatments left his body weakened against the cold.
Relentless running turned the tables for Mackey in this year's race. His dogs delivered a stunning run of about 140 miles from Nulato to Unalakleet without a significant rest to vault past Jeff King into a lead they'd never relinquish.
Imagine running five marathons back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back. Mackey's dogs went a little farther -- and then kept it up all the way to Nome.
"I'm totally willing to gamble any time any day," Mackey said back in Unalakleet. "I'm not afraid to lay it on the line."
It wasn't the first time King had fallen victim to a bold Mackey ploy. Two years ago, King seemed poised to pass Mackey in the home stretch but Mackey slipped out of the Elim checkpoint as King slept to gain the upper hand.
"I wondered," King said this year in Shaktoolik, "maybe that 140-mile run was a little much. But they came back."
Since the race's rag-tag, thrown-together beginnings in 1973, some 817 mushers have guided dog teams to Nome. Eighteen have been crowned champion. Only one has worn that crown four consecutive years.
The late, great Susan Butcher had her string of three straight stopped in 1989 by Nenana's Joe Runyan; Butcher won again in 1990.
More recently, Doug Swingley of Montana dominated the 1,000-mile marathon from 1999-2001, a streaked ended when Martin Buser of Big Lake authored the fastest Iditarod ever. Swingley lollygagged into town in 40th place that year and proceeded to use the burled arch as his wedding chapel, marrying longtime companion Melanie Shirilla as dogs stood by as canine bridesmaids and groomsmen.
"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 earlier. "Hans Gatt just whipped my butt in the Yukon Quest."
But he couldn't do it again.
Nevertheless, Gatt's second-place finish was another piece of evidence that winning the Quest was a sure route to the top of the Iditarod leader board. In 2007, Mackey first pulled off what had been considered an impossible double.
In four years, the Quest champions have gone first-first-second-second just weeks after their first 1,000-mile ultramarathon.
We'll be updating through the afternoon and evening, so check back.