NOME -- Lance Mackey is reloading.
"The top 15 guys and some of the ones behind me have been trying to beat me for the last four years," the four-time champion said Wednesday morning after finishing the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 16th place.
"They all got their shot at once," said Mackey, who arrived at the finish of the 1,000-mile race with seven of his original 16 dogs.
"So now it's over with," he said. "I'll be back."
Mackey entered the 2011 Iditarod seeking a historic fifth-straight win, saying he believed his team stood as good a chance as ever.
Eight days later, history was made all right -- by Kotzebue musher John Baker.
Baker posted the fastest Iditarod time ever -- 8 days, 18 hours, 47 minutes -- and arrived nearly a full day ahead of Mackey.
While Mackey, 40, says his goal as a younger musher was once to simply place in the top 20, his team's performance surprised Iditarod fans accustomed to watching him dominate the race year after year.
While the prize money is shrinking, and this year's field of 62 mushers was nine smaller than last year, Mackey said it's never been harder to win.
"When Rick Swenson got five (wins) there was five or six guys you had to beat," he said. "(Now) there's 20 people you have to beat to win the Iditarod. Any of the teams that came in the top 10 can win this race."
Mackey called the new champion "a cool cat" Wednesday.
"The thing I like about John -- he don't get his feathers ruffled easily. He's calm. He's very patient with his dogs," Mackey said. "But he's a perfectionist. You don't see him making wasted moves or yelling or discouraged with the dogs' performances."
Mackey said he tried to remain optimistic about his own race, but knew he couldn't win before the Iditarod was half over.
Illness and injuries hammered his team early. Mackey dropped last year's Golden Harness winner, lead dog and team quarterback Maple, in Rohn.
Mackey left another three dogs who weren't pulling or eating well -- Jester, Pimp and Lippy -- 75 miles down the trail in the Athabascan village checkpoint of Nikolai. By the time he left Koyuk along the Norton Sound, more than half his team was gone.
Baker, meantime, marched forward.
Hundreds of people crammed Front Street for the Kotzebue musher's record-breaking arrival Tuesday morning.
Dozens watched Mackey's team race in the next day. At the time, Mackey's 22-mile run from Safety to Nome was the fastest between the two checkpoints in this year's Iditarod.
"I'll be back. No doubt about it," he told the crowd.
A throat-cancer survivor who had a finger removed after suffering nerve damage, Mackey walked into a warm garage where mushers pour water for their dogs after arriving in Nome. A mechanical hum buzzed overhead.
His black snowsuit half unzipped and a knife hanging from his belt, Mackey said this year's Iditarod turned into a training run for his young dog team.
A 3-year-old named Wilson has the makings of his next lead dog.
Early in the race, as he took a mandatory 24-hour break in Takotna, Mackey talked about taking the 2012 Iditarod easy -- stopping at every checkpoint, taking long rests.
"I kind of did that already, it seems like," Mackey said of this year's race. "For the last half, I stayed at every checkpoint and I stayed at least six hours. I didn't even want to leave Unalakleet."
Plus, he said, he can't afford to finish 16th in the Iditarod and take the next year off.
"I've been struggling and battling ever since I was a little boy," he said. "Iditarod was just another battle."
By KYLE HOPKINS