With two Iron Dog titles to his name, Marc McKenna knows what it takes to win the longest and toughest snowmachine race in the world.
But he also knows how easy it is lose, which is why he wasn't taking for granted the 48-minute lead he and Dusty VanMeter had with less than 300 miles to go in the 2,000-mile race on Friday after reaching Tanana.
"I've lost the race by a minute before," McKenna, who is running his 12th race, said by phone from Tanana. "I broke a jackshaft an hour out of Ruby in 2002 with an hour and a half lead.
"Last year we went in a hole in the ice on the Yukon River on the way back to Fairbanks with clean sleds and a 10- or 15-minute lead and ended up losing four hours," he said. "I know what can happen."
Barring a similar disaster in the final 291 miles from Tanana to Fairbanks, McKenna will notch his third Iron Dog victory today when the race ends on the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks.
Thanks to a mechanical problem that knocked their closest pursuers, Todd Minnick and Nick Olstad, out of contention on Friday, McKenna and VanMeter should be able to coast to the $50,000 prize that awaits the first team to reach Fairbanks.
McKenna, however, would have no premature talk about another trip to the winner's circle.
"We're just trying to stay steady," said the 37-year-old owner of an Anchorage asphalt company. "We're just holding it together trying to have clean iron so if we have to pick it up at the end we can.
"We've still got a long way to go."
McKenna and VanMeter, who are trying to become the first Ski-Doo team to win the Iron Dog in eight years, are scheduled to leave Tanana at 8 a.m. today with a lead of 48 minutes, 3 seconds over the second-place team of Tyler Huntington of Fairbanks and Tre West of Nome, who jumped three spots in the standings on Friday as a result of the misfortune of others, most notably Minnick and Olstad.
Minnick and Olstad were bearing down on McKenna and VanMeter, having closed the gap between them from 25 minutes to 9 minutes since leaving the halfway point in Nome, when disaster struck in the form of a broken jackshaft on one of their machines.
The Polaris riders sat in Ruby for more than three hours waiting for a part to be flown in so they could fix the sled. By the time it arrived, their chances for a win were trashed.
Chris Olds and Mike Morgan, who were running in third place leaving the halfway point in Nome, also encountered mechanical problems between Unalakleet and Galena. They had dropped to fifth place, more than three hours out of the lead by the time they reached Tanana.
Race marshal Chris Graeber said it will probably take four to five hours for the first team to reach Fairbanks from Tanana.
McKenna and VanMeter pulled their Ski-Doos into Tanana at 2:13 p.m. after averaging 66.24 mph on the 120-mile run from Ruby to Galena.
Huntington and West, who clocked in at 3:01 p.m. on their Polarises, averaged 68.74 mph but it only gained them four minutes on the leaders. They did, however, pass another Polaris team, Ryan Sottosanti and Andy Zwink, who arrived in Tanana at 3:08 after averaging 62.19 mph en route from Ruby.
Those speeds were more than 30 mph slower than the speeds the same teams clocked in the darkness from Kaltag to Galena early Friday morning. The top four teams all averaged more than 93 mph on that 98-mile stretch of river.
"That's what we always do when it's decent," McKenna said.
Huntington, who grew up in Galena and knows that part of the trail well, and West posted the fastest split time with an average speed of 99 mph. Minnick and Olstad averaged 98 mph between Kaltag and Galena. McKenna and VanMeter were the slowest of the bunch at 93 mph but that may have been by design.
"We've been going fast but we haven't been going as fast as we can," McKenna said in Tanana.
Even so, with a time of 31 hours, 17 minutes, 54 seconds into Tanana, they are on course to shatter the course record of 37:19:08 set by Minnick and Olstad in 2009.
Twenty-four of the 30 teams who started the race were still running as of 5 p.m. Friday.