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Mackey's winning streak ends, but he's reloading for 2012

Kyle Hopkins
Paul Kudla and his Afghan hound Fire in Nome during the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday March 16, 2011. Kudla and Fire plan on traveling to Anchorage to compete in the dog show at the Egan Center on March 26 and 27.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Linda Brown and John Harkness of Glasgow, Scotland read the Anchorage Daily News in the Nome headquarters of the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday, March 16, 2011.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Kathy Chapoton and her husband Iditarod musher Martin Buser in the finish chute in Nome just after Buser completed the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday, March 16, 2011.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Iditarod musher Martin Buser and one of his leaders in the chute at the Nome finish line of the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday March 16, 2011.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Linda Brown and John Harkness of Glasgow, Scotland read the Anchorage Daily News in the Nome headquarters of the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday, March 16, 2011.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Iditarod musher Lance Mackey with his leaders at the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Wednesday, March 16, 2011. Four time consecutive and defending champion Mackey finished in 16th place.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Iditarod musher Martin Buser and one of his leaders in the chute at the Nome finish line of the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday March 16, 2011.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Iditarod musher Lance Mackey crossed the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Wednesday, March 16, 2011. Four time consecutive and defending champion Mackey finished in 16th place.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Iditarod musher Lance Mackey with his leaders at the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Wednesday, March 16, 2011. Four time consecutive and defending champion Mackey finished in 16th place.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Snowmachines belonging to the Iditarod trail breakers sit in front of the Old St. Joseph's Church in Nome near the finish line of the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday, March 16, 2011.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Iditarod musher Lance Mackey crossed the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Wednesday, March 16, 2011. Four time consecutive and defending champion Mackey finished in 16th place.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
The Gnome from Nome snow sculpture sits in front of the Old St. Joseph's Church in Nome near the finish line of the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday, March 16, 2011.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Snowmachines belonging to the Iditarod trail breakers sit in front of the Old St. Joseph's Church in Nome near the finish line of the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday, March 16, 2011.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Iditarod musher Lance Mackey signs in at the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Wednesday, March 16, 2011. Four time consecutive and defending champion Mackey finished in 16th place.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
The Gnome from Nome snow sculpture sits in front of the Old St. Joseph's Church in Nome near the finish line of the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday, March 16, 2011.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Iditarod musher Lance Mackey and Dale Morgan, of Nome, compete in the finals of the light weight class in the Breakers Bar arm wrestling competition at the end of the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday March 16, 2011. Morgan was first and Mackey was 2nd.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Iditarod musher Lance Mackey checks his watch at the finish line of the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race to see if he broke the record time from Safety to Nome on Wednesday March 16, 2011. Four time consecutive and defending champion Mackey finished in 16th place.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Iditarod musher Lance Mackey signs in at the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Wednesday, March 16, 2011. Four time consecutive and defending champion Mackey finished in 16th place.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Fans photograph Iditarod musher Martin Buser at the Nome finish line of the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday, March 16, 2011.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Through fog from spectators breath, Iditarod musher Lance Mackey drives his team to the dog lot at the end of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday March 16, 2011. Four time consecutive and defending champion Mackey finished in 16th place.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Iditarod musher Lance Mackey checks his watch at the finish line of the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race to see if he broke the record time from Safety to Nome on Wednesday March 16, 2011. Four time consecutive and defending champion Mackey finished in 16th place.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Iditarod mushers Martin Buser and John Baker talk in the finish chute in Nome just after Buser completed the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday, March 16, 2011.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Iditarod musher Lance Mackey and Dale Morgan, of Nome, compete in the finals of the light weight class in the Breakers Bar arm wrestling competition at the end of the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday March 16, 2011. Morgan was first and Mackey was 2nd.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Through fog from spectators breath, Iditarod musher Lance Mackey drives his team to the dog lot at the end of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday March 16, 2011. Four time consecutive and defending champion Mackey finished in 16th place.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Fans photograph one of Iditarod musher Martin Buser's sled dogs at the Nome finish line of the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday, March 16, 2011.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Fans photograph Iditarod musher Martin Buser at the Nome finish line of the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday, March 16, 2011.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Iditarod mushers Martin Buser and John Baker talk in the finish chute in Nome just after Buser completed the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday, March 16, 2011.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Iditarod musher Martin Buser enters the chute at the Nome finish line of the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday, March 16, 2011.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Fans photograph one of Iditarod musher Martin Buser's sled dogs at the Nome finish line of the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday, March 16, 2011.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Iditarod musher Martin Buser and Sheldon Katchatag of Unalakleet at the Nome finish line of the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday, March 16, 2011.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Iditarod musher Martin Buser enters the chute at the Nome finish line of the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday, March 16, 2011.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Iditarod musher Martin Buser enters the chute at the Nome finish line of the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday, March 16, 2011.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Iditarod musher Martin Buser and Sheldon Katchatag of Unalakleet at the Nome finish line of the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday, March 16, 2011.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Paul Kudla and his Afghan hound Fire in Nome during the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday March 16, 2011. Kudla and Fire plan on traveling to Anchorage to compete in the dog show at the Egan Center on March 26 and 27.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Iditarod musher Martin Buser enters the chute at the Nome finish line of the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday, March 16, 2011.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Kathy Chapoton and her husband Iditarod musher Martin Buser in the finish chute in Nome just after Buser completed the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday, March 16, 2011.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News

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
khopkins@adn.com