NIKOLAI -- Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof pulled into this village checkpoint Tuesday with three dog heads -- Hag, Queen and Recon -- poking from the top of his sled and a cold realization tugging at his mind.
With the trio cramping from a combination of dehydration and relatively warm weather, he was down to eight strong dogs. Just half of an Iditarod team and another 700 miles to mush.
He scratched early in the afternoon for the first time in 15 Iditarod attempts.
"That's part of the sport -- knowing when to say when," Gebhardt said as he sat on his sled, waiting for a caravan of planes to take him and his team home.
This year's fast, hard trail may be perfect for Martin Buser of Big Lake, record holder for fastest finish. But several other top teams appeared in danger of overheating or flaming out as they stopped in Nikolai for food and a few hours sleep Tuesday.
Hans Gatt, second in last year's Iditarod, says half his team is sick and eating poorly. Now he's simply hoping to place in the top 10. Defending champion Lance Mackey carried three dogs in his basket when he arrived here and had been toting some for roughly 50 miles, he said.
Mackey was down to a dozen dogs. Two more look marginal.
The four-time champion wasn't about to get discouraged, but as he carried a dog from the rear of the team to the front he said the losses dampened his chance of a historic fifth win.
"It doesn't look too promising at this time," he said.
"We're just going to kind of put ourselves in defense mode and try to get these 12 dogs to Nome as healthy and happy as possible. If it puts me there first, great. If it puts me there 21st, well that's the way it is, right?"
After dropping Maple, a veteran leader and the 2010 Golden Harness winner, in Rainy Pass, Mackey left three more behind in Nikolai.
"I could go a long ways and do some damage with 12," he said.
Hans Gatt, who placed second to Mackey in last year's Iditarod and is a perennial threat, said half of his team appears to be suffering from kennel cough.
While Gebhardt may have been racing too fast too soon, Gatt said his team appeared to catch the bug when six of his dogs ran the Yukon Quest 300 with his wife.
He's dropped two dogs, including one of his main leaders, and believes the dogs are suffering from the contagious upper respiratory infection, Gatt said. Kennel cough can hurt a dog's appetite, which is vital in a 1,000-mile marathon.
"It's the biggest problem," Gatt said, stirring a bowl of moose soup in the Nikolai school gymnasium. His fingers, one cropped by an old motorcross accident, are thick from the second-degree frostbite he suffered on the Quest.
"Dogs need to eat if you want to race," said Gatt, who had been parked in Nikolai for 10 hours and may have elected to take his 24-hour layover there.
Mackey suspects kennel cough may be troubling his dogs too -- maybe from the week he spent in Anchorage before the race. If so, it's only in the early stages, he said. But really, he's not sure why some of his teammates aren't pulling.
"I really don't know what's going on. It's discouraging," he said.
There may be more trouble ahead. Two more dogs were troubling Mackey, including a black wheel dog named Pat who hasn't been eating well and hadn't pulled well for 100 miles, he said.
"A world-class dog team falling apart before my very eyes," Mackey said.
'NOT EXERCISING GOOD JUDGMENT' Five-time champion Rick Swenson, 60, said mushers struggling with dropped dogs may not be holding their teams back as much as they should.
"The trail is fast, and they're not exercising good judgment," he said.
If Swenson sounds a little barb-tongued, it could be because he hates news interviews. Or it could be the apparently broken collarbone he suffered Monday in a crash before the Rainy Pass checkpoint.
"It's painful," he said, clacking two bricks of frozen meat together beside his sled.
"But as long as I keep my arm down as low as possible below my chest and don't try to reach out very far it's not so bad," he said.
"I'm surprised actually."
FAREWELL TO A FRIEND
As Swenson prepared to head 50 miles down the trail to McGrath, Gebhardt waited for a plane to take him home.
He'd carried a dog with cramps in his basket through Dalzell Gorge into Rohn. There had been shoulder injuries and sore wrists. One of the dogs wasn't eating. Another was timid and inexperienced -- too risky to take on a short-handed team.
It's a good thing the Iditarod was arranging his plane ride, he said. "I don't even have a wallet with me. I couldn't fly on a commercial flight."
Dallas Seavey, the 24-year-old who won last month's Quest, prepared to return to the trail a few yards away. He shouted to Gebhardt as his sled began to move. "You coming?"
Gebhardt was not.
Seavey put his palms up. "Sorry to hear it, man."
Dee Dee Jonrowe of Willow walked up behind Gebhardt and kissed the top of his blue Kuskokwim 300 hat. Gebhardt won that race in January and brought the same dogs to the Iditarod, believing he had one of the strongest teams in the field.
The two mushers walked side by side. Jonrowe too, has twice been runner-up.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," she said.
"I'm not," Gebhardt replied.