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Defending Iditarod champion Lance Mackey concedes 2011 race

Jill Burke
Lance Mackey arrives in Kaltag on Saturday evening. Stephen Nowers photo

KALTAG -- The reigning champion of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race arrived here late Saturday and admitted his quest for a fifth straight victory is over, even though the race still has hundreds of miles to go.

"This is somebody else's year," Lance Mackey said after pulling into the village checkpoint and parking his dog team.

Just minutes before, as he'd made his way across the Yukon River and up the bank on the approach into town, people had gathered at the river’s edge to cheer him on, shouting, "Come on Lance, hurry up! Come on!"

The Fairbanks musher has made a career of being the spindly underdog who defies the odds and his detractors. The unstoppable titan of dog mushing lifted a beaver-fur mitten to wave back to the crowd. In his hand, he was still clutching the pole he uses to help push the sled forward and assist the dogs.

On the 70-mile trip upriver from Eagle Island, Mackey said later, he did a lot of thinking. He thought about his lost shot at a fifth victory, and he resolved that this year's race would not be about a loss. It would instead, he said, be remembered as the race that punctuated what has been a long, long run of good fortune.

"It would be really greedy of me to think that I should have another perfect run," he said as he showered straw, which is used for insulation, over his resting dogs. "These are world class dog teams I am running against and every one of them deserves a victory."

"We’ve been lucky and now it's someone else's turn," he said. "I’ll be the first to congratulate that winner as soon as I get there to see them."

Who that someone else might be is the big question. Some of the sport's best talent is crowded together to the front of the pack. Several mushers there have long sought and come close to, but never seized, the winner's title.

"I think it'd be great for the sport and the villages to see Johnny Baker win," said Mackey when asked who he would be rooting for from here on out. But then again, he added, it'd be great to see a racer like Hugh Neff, Sebastian Schnuelle, Ramey Smyth or Sonny Lindner get the big prize.

"Everyone of them deserves the feeling of winning," he said.

Baker, a resident of Kotzebue on the Arctic coast north of Nome, is a regional favorite. One of the sport's few Alaska Native mushers, he's run Iditarod 15 times and regularly finished in the top 10. He finished third in 2009. Last year he had a commanding lead on the way to the halfway point at Cripple on the race's northern route, but got confused as to the location of the checkpoint and lost precious hours trying to figure out where he was. The time cost him the lead and, possibly, a race victory.

During his layover here, Baker said that his strategy from now on to the finish will simply be to "keep traveling as much as we can for now" and to "just keep moving'' so as to maintain the two-hour lead he has established.

"John goes into march mode," Willow musher DeeDee Jonrowe said of the methodical and deliberate pace for which Baker's teams are known.

Jonrowe has nearly three decades of Iditarod finishes to her credit, and this year is driving one of the race's fastest teams. She doesn’t know whether she can catch the leaders, but she’ll try. Her main priority coming off the Yukon River, she said, was to get some sleep so she could think better.

The 150-mile run from Anvik by way of Eagle Island to here was rough, she said, not because of the trail but because the Eagle checkpoint wasn't terribly comfortable. She was too cold there to sleep well. She came in here tired enough that at one point she stumbled into her sled as she undressed her dogs and got them ready for a nap.

Talk among mushers at the checkpoint focused on Baker and Ramey Smyth from Wasilla, who many believe remains a force with which to be reckoned.

"He's in good shape. I can see that," said Robert Nicholas, one of the villagers who had come out to get a look at the action. He watched as Smyth hauled water for the dogs.

"He is not walking flat footed. He's bouncing. His adrenaline is going," Nicholas observed. "He's ready to go."

More than one musher has commented on how physically fit Smyth is, which gives him an edge by allowing him to assist his team more than others, especially on hills. Smyth's dogs are also in good shape and moving fast, though a veterinarian here described them as "weary."

"Ramey Smyth looks phenomenal. He just left us in the dust," said Neff, an Iditarod veteran from Tok. He noted Smyth’s appearance and quick disappearance on the trail as the musher caught Neff's team and that of Schnuelle from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada.

Working on chores that are a musher's first priority at each checkpoint, Smyth was fast-paced and focused. "Everybody clear out," he said. "I got to feed these guys!" A small crowd of fans that was gathered close around his team moved to give him some room.

"This guy's dogs look good!" someone said.

While other mushers are clearly taking note of Smyth as someone with a serious shot at a win in this race, he’s not ready to be quite as bold about his own prospects. He wears his confidence quietly.
 
"I feel like I’m doing the job," he said. "The dogs are doing good and giving everything they’ve got. I’m grateful to be up near the front."

Smyth said his dogs have battled some sickness this year, but he has managed to keep them healthy enough to stay in the race. In past years, that hasn’t always been the case, he said. 

Out of 16 Iditarods, Smyth's best performance was a third place finish in 2008, the same as Baker a year later.

Smyth thinks it will be hard to catch Baker. "John has an amazing dog team," he said. But he then revealed the fire he has burning for a win.

Perhaps it this inner determination, compelled with his own fitness, that his rivals sense this year. Baker may be ahead. Someone else may eventually get into the mix. But whoever is at the front best be mindful of their rearview mirror.

"Whoever's the winner, I’m going to push them down the stretch and go past them," Smyth said. The musher is well known for the speed he's been able to get out of teams along the Bering Sea coast. He's often had the fastest bunch of dogs over the last 100 miles. 

He recognizes he has a shot in this race, too. He noted the competition is still too close to call, and that’s the right attitude, according to friend and fellow musher, Jonrowe.

"You stop running when you are on the street," she said. "And if you don’t, you’ve given up too soon."

Reflecting that attitude, Smyth was still not convinced Mackey was totally out of the running. Maybe, just maybe, mushing's modern legend had one last trick to pull, Smyth said.

"Mackey’s never down. He’s waiting for everybody else to slow down and then he’ll speed up and pass them," Smyth said. "Swift execution," that’s his plan. 

Mackey’s determination to come from behind is so well known that one race spectator commented that if necessary Mackey would "put himself in a harness and pull."

But Mackey didn't seem to think even the most extraordinary of moves would help this time.

"Maybe next year," he said. "I’ll be back with a vengeance."

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com