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Iditarod: Lance Mackey says he can't win this year

Craig Medred,Jill Burke
Mike Williams Jr feeds his team during his stop in Anvik on Friday.
Stephen Nowers photo
Robert Nelson mushes into Anvik on Friday.
Stephen Nowers photo
Robert Nelson approaches Anvik on Friday.
Stephen Nowers photo
Dallas Seavey mushes past the church and into Anvik on Friday.
Stephen Nowers photo
Robert Nelson passes the Mission Building on his way into Anvik on Friday.
Stephen Nowers photo
John Baker changes the runners of his sled in Anvik.
Stephen Nowers photo
Bradley Kruger pets one of Hugh Neff's dogs in the Anvik checkpoint on Friday.
Stephen Nowers photo
Lance Mackey in the Anvik checkpoint during the 2011 Iditarod.
Stephen Nowers photo
John Baker leaves Anvik on a slough of the Anvik River on Friday.
Stephen Nowers photo
Lance Mackey leaves the Anvik checkpoint on Friday.
Stephen Nowers photo
Lance Mackey leaves the Anvik checkpoint on a slough of the Anvik River during the 2011 Iditarod.
Stephen Nowers photo

KALTAG -- The reigning king of the Iditarod Tral Sled Dog Race has conceded this year's competition. Long live the king.

Lance Mackey from Fairbanks, who ran off an unprecedented string of four straight victories, said here late Saturday that he has no hope of catching race leaders John Baker from Kotzebue and Ramey Smyth from Wasilla.

"I'm out of it for a victory,'' Mackey said, "and I know that. It's a reality. I will be back with a vengenance.''

Mackey was the ninth musher into this, the last of the Yukon River checkpoint before the race turns overland on the portage to Unalakleet on the Bering Sea. He arrived about five hours behind Baker, battling to hold off surging 23-year-old Dallas Seavey from Wasilla.

Ahead of him, Baker was already on the trail to Unakaleet, and Smyth, Hugh Neff from Tok, Sebastian Schnuelle from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada, and a few others were ramping up for departure.

"It would be foolish and very selfish to think that I could have another perfect win,'' Mackey said.

Where for years everything seemed to go right for Mackey, this year things went wrong. He had to drop seven of the 16 dogs in his team early because of nicks, bumps or simple fatigue, and he's now battling to keep another dog -- Rev -- going. Rev, Mackey said, has problems with harness chafe because of what vets call the dog's "big package.'' Mackey said he's never before had a dog suffer for harness chafe.

But not since his early years as a back-of-the-pack musher has he had any of the problems of this year. Since Mackey won his first big race in 2005 -- the 1,000 mile Yukon Quest from Whitehorse to Fairbanks -- his teams have seemed bulletproof. Mackey won four straight Quest championships, which was, in and of itself, a feat.

In the middle of the Quest run, though, Mackey did the impossible. He won the highly competitive, 900-mile Iditarod in March after winning the less-competitive but tougher Quest in late February. Before Mackey, only a handful of mushers had even been able to complete both the Quest and the Iditarod in a year. It was thought ridiculous to think about winning them back to back.

Mackey did it. And then to prove it was no fluke, he did it again. After the second double, though, the man who still struggles with some of the after affects of the cancer in his neck -- he now has no saliva glands and has to constantly carry around water with which to wet his throat -- gave up on the Quest to focus on the Iditarod.

Already by then the race's dominant force, he became its unbeatable force, adding to his 2007 and 2008 wins with victories again in 2000 and 2010. He was by then to the Iditarod what another Lance -- Lance Armstrong -- was to the Tour de France. Maybe it was a precursor of what was to come in this year's Iditarod when Armstrong's last tour fell apart in somewhat the may Mackey's Iditarod has fallen apart. All of the things the could go wrong before but didn't started going wrong.

No one saw this coming for Mackey. Before the Iditarod began, he was the odds on favorite to win again and he looked good early. But then the reality that it's a lot easier to lose an Iditarod than win it set in. Problems caught up to Mackey. He's been struggling since the race's halfway point.

Nonetheless, the easy-going, self-effacing, always friendly veteran is sure to remain a crowd favorite. When he rolled in here just before sundown, people came out to chear his arrival from the banks of the Yukon. It was a nice end to a long day beating upriver into a snotty north wind and snow-blinding sun.

Mackey promptly set to work carrying for his dogs. Though he knows he can't win, he can still place well, even with a team down to nine dogs, possibly going on eight. Mushers have many times finished in the top-10 with fear in harness.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com or Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com