Friday morning update:
Four-time champion Lance Makey left the Ophir checkpoint at just before 5 a.m. Friday morning after electing to take his mandatory 24-hour rest in the checkpoint. Despite his dogs' illnesses, official standings show he left with a full team of 16 dogs in harness.
OPHIR — Lance Mackey, the man who once dominated Alaska's long-distance mushing scene, said his own mistakes in this year's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race forced the four-time champion to turn his team around Wednesday and drive them on a slow journey back to this remote, snowy checkpoint. It's the first time in his career, he said, he has turned his back to the finish line.
"The hardest part is that my dogs paid the price for my stupidity," four-time Iditarod champion Mackey said Thursday afternoon as he prepared to boil water in a big metal pot near his mostly sleeping team. "I blew it."
Their problems started about four hours out of Ophir — a checkpoint some 340 trail miles from Willow that is no more than a few cabins and tents, where dog teams rest on straw among thickets of spruce trees. As Mackey and his team ran down the trail, his dogs' stool went from "perfect," he said, to a green-colored "projectile liquid." He said he expected one or two dogs — tops — to get diarrhea. "Not the whole team at one time."
Mackey didn't have enough medicine for all 16 dogs, so he tried to split his supply. It didn't work. Meanwhile, his dogs' harnesses — which Mackey had loosened — rubbed some dogs' skin raw beneath their front legs.
"This is a badass, strong team and I didn't want to go through there out of control and get to the other side with a bunch of beat-up dogs that I'm trying to fix," he said, referring to the rugged stretch of trail in the Dalzell Gorge and the bumpy section between Rohn and Nikolai. "So my theory was to go a little slower with harnesses that didn't have as much pulling power."
But as the dogs suffered from diarrhea, they started losing weight. And the loose harnesses became like a "sloppy pair of shoes," he said. At the Ophir checkpoint, he lifted up the arm of one of his dogs, Mohawk, to show a slice of raw skin. It's better than it once was, he said.
"The harness, because it was so big and sloppy, literally tried to saw his arm off," he said. "I take great pride in the way I take care of my team and pride in the comments that people make about my team and this is one of the most embarrassing things I've ever done."
Mackey said he stopped his team on the trail for several hours, trying to figure out what to do. He could travel about 30 miles back to Ophir or onward to the next checkpoint at Cripple. He decided to turn around.
"I have not a damn thing to prove to anybody," he said.
He had already stripped off the harnesses. They backtracked, away from Nome, in their dog jackets, and the jackets had big rips by the time they reached Ophir at 4:20 a.m. Thursday, where Mackey declared his 24-hour mandatory rest.
Standing near his team in black fleece pants and an oversized button-up shirt later Thursday, Mackey said his race isn't over. But he's not making a comeback. The strategy he started to deploy at the beginning of the race will have to wait until next year.
"If I can put this together and it plays out, it will be very historic," he said.
This year, he plans to make it to Nome with 16 healthy dogs. He said he has no plan to scratch.
"I'm still going to be aggressive. I'm not going camping from here to Nome now because I had a couple of setbacks," he said. "My life has been full of setbacks and we overcome them and we seem to come out in fine fashion a lot of times."
As of Thursday afternoon, Mackey and his dogs were parked behind two old cabins. A strategic spot, he said, so he and the dogs could be alone.
"I just need to rebuild their trust," he said. "I let them down."