Swenson feels he can run with the best of them

Kevin Klott

MCGRATH -- Racing in soft snow and warm weather for running dogs, Rick Swenson headed down the frozen Kuskokwim River early Wednesday morning, believing that if he was careful enough, he could hang with the leaders of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race for the first time in years.

This 36th running of the Last Great Race marks the 30th Iditarod for the five-time champion from Two Rivers. Even at age 55, Swenson came into the race with the same goal as every former champion, sort of.

"Be that six-time champion, be the only one," said Swenson, who's taking his 24-hour layover here.

"I've been the five-time champion for 17 years. That's a long time they've been trying to shoot me in the back. And they might do it."

Who are they?

Swenson is talking about the prospects of four-time champions Martin Buser of Big Lake and Jeff King of Denali Park matching his record five victories.

"I guess if one of them happens to win, I'd really have to get curious and do what I did in '91 and have another race," Swenson said.

That 1991 race was the last year Swenson won the 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome, and he did it in storybook fashion. Caught in a blizzard along the Bering Sea coast, he went to the front of his team and led them through while most other mushers turned back.

It was a bit of a surprise in Nome when Swenson emerged victorious out of the storm. Many expected to see the late Susan Butcher, then the dominant dog driver on the trail.

Since then he's finished seven in the top 10 and two in the top 20. But the past three years have had people wondering if he was showing signs of age. He scratched in 2005, a first for Swenson; finished a career-worst 26th in 2006; and was 25th last year.

But there was a moment on his way from Nikolai to McGrath on Wednesday where Swenson said this year felt like the Iditarods of old when he used to chase Butcher, former champ Rick Mackey and others toward the finish line. He caught a lot of them.

And it was all about dog care.

This year, with the mercury hovering near 40, Swenson charged down the Kuskokwim River and across the huge, snow-covered swamps where the trail portages overland to cut the oxbows.

It was so warm that Marble, one of Swenson's larger dogs, started to overheat.

Though Swenson knew two mushers -- Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers and Buser -- weren't far behind, he stepped on his foot brake, dug his snowhook in along the trail, and stopped to help Marble, a three-time Iditarod finisher whom Swenson cherishes.

Grabbing a couple of Thermos bottles of cool water out of his sled, he marched up to Marble, flopped the dog on his back, and poured water on his tummy to cool him down.

"He's big and I didn't want to carry him. He's a good dog, so I just said, 'It's too far to haul that big sucker,' " Swenson said.

As Swenson tended to Marble, Zirkle and Buser blew past. Swenson could see them in front of him the rest of the way to the checkpoint, but couldn't catch them. He did overtake Kotzebue's Ed Iten, he said, but had a heck of a time passing

"It wasn't his fault," Swenson added. "It was my dogs' fault. That cost me 10 minutes."

Other than those two relatively small problems, Swenson said he's having a great race -- and perhaps more importantly, a great time keeping up with the front of the pack. Getting closer to the front is his goal once he's completed his 24 here.

"If I could get up in the front and pick up the good trail, I could run with Mitch and all of them," he said. "I will. I just have to be careful."

In the meantime, Swenson is enjoying his 30th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

"I love being out here," he said. "I can't actually think of anything I'd rather be doing right now."

Find Daily News sports reporter Kevin Klott at adn.com/sports/kklottt or 257-4335.

2008 Iditarod leaderboard
Trail map: Updated standings