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On course for a record win
Swift Swingley set to break Iditarod's nine-day barrier

Daily News outdoors editor

News Photo

WHITE MOUNTAIN - Expect Montanan Doug Swingley to challenge the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race's nine-day barrier in Nome this morning.

After he pulled in here Monday afternoon with the sun still high in the western sky, he confessed, "I'm kind of at least giving it a try."

If he succeeds, Swingley may be headed down Nome's Front Street before noon.

Defending champion and holder of the Iditarod record of 9 days, 2 hours, Swingley came into this race confident and predicting victory. By Monday, he had just 77 miles left to make the prediction come true.

After Swingley's mandatory eight-hour rest here ends at 1:33 a.m. today, he could try to extend his six-to-eight-hour lead over Kasilof's Paul Gebhardt, the closest chaser.

The Alaskans trailing the first and only Outsider to win the race might consider themselves lucky to be within eight hours. Swingley said his time "would have been way under nine (days) if I'd totally stuck to my schedule."

The schedule had him penciled in for an 8-day, 17-hour race.

"That was optimal," Swingley said. "You really can't tell. That would be a perfect world."

As it turned out, he said, his dogs simply needed more rest than the original schedule permitted. Their run times, he added, were right on schedule, but recovery in the checkpoints was slowed by some sort of virus.

"It hasn't hurt their performance at all," Swingley said. "(But) it's a good thing it's warm."

Warmth makes it easier for the dogs to recover during the dozens of rest stops along the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail from Wasilla to Nome.

Rest and recovery are keys to performing well in this sort of ultramarathon, which is why Swingley dotes on his dogs. The first thing he did when he pulled into the swarm of media and villagers at this checkpoint Monday was to wave everyone back.

"I gotta take care of my dogs before I do anything," Swingley said. "They're tired, and they need a nap."

All of the dogs got a broth of water and feed, a bed of straw and a blanket before Swingley paused to sign autographs for village children and chat with reporters and well-wishers.

Even as Swingley moved businesslike up and down the gangline tending to the dogs, though, it was obvious who was winning Iditarod 2000.

"He has a decided grin on his face," said Iditarod race judge Andy Anderson.

Today Swingley will, in all probability, become the fastest and oldest musher ever to win the Iditarod.

Asked what it's like to become a sports star at middle age, Swingley, 46, smiled, laughed and said, "I'm beyond middle age." Always the professional, he noted that the average life expectancy for an American male today is 72.3 years and half of that is 36. Swingley only wishes he were still 36.

Luckily, he said, "we don't do the work."

The dogs do nearly all of that, but a big key to victory is the thinking done by the person on the runners behind them.

"That (thinking) is easy for us old guys," Swingley said.

He thought up the plan for a great race here, but it wasn't perfect. "I overslept by an hour" between Nulato and Kaltag, he said. "My alarm didn't go off."

Aside from that, Swingley's run was pretty much a flawless one. He took it easy to the Yukon River, running with a bunch of other teams, and then took off, using his greater team speed to pull away.

Swingley's team speed is now the source of much conjecture, with everyone wanting to do know what he did that was special. He said there was no one thing.

"Training and breeding and everything," Swingley said. "Maybe I'm on a different track."

There has been a lot of talk about the 150-mile runs he takes with his team, and reporters asked him more about that here. Swingley pointed out it is nothing new. A lot of Alaska mushers, including five-time champ Rick Swenson and four-time champ Susan Butcher, were doing that a long time ago.

The difference, if any, might be that Swingley goes faster on those long runs, in part because he has the trails that allow it.

"I just run them wide open," Swingley said.

Some dogs suffer minor injuries - the normal sprains and strains known to all athletes - because of the intensive training, Swingley said, but he still managed to put together a team of 16 strong dogs from a pool of 27. Many of those dogs, he added, were veterans of the team that ran to victory last year.

Swingley thought that might be the real key to his breakaway this year: The dogs knew what was expected. Swenson, he noted, probably had as fast a team early on, but his dogs were younger, and that might have cost him.

Swingley also noted that if the teams behind him are interested in help, Pepy the lead dog is available for breeding at $500 a turn.

The way this race is going, there might be a line forming by Nome.

©2000 Anchorage Daily News
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