Lance Mackey wins second straight Iditarod

March 12, 2008 1:50:18 PM PDT
Lance Mackey couldn't shake four-time champion Jeff King and his faster team.

So Mackey pulled off a stunt at the Elim checkpoint -- 123 miles from the Nome finish line -- that proved to be the turning point en route to winning his second consecutive Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday.

Mackey arrived at the Elim check point Tuesday three minutes ahead of his rival, drank coffee and made a show of settling in for a nap. He told checkpoint volunteers to wake him in an hour and -- with King snoring -- sneaked out of the checkpoint 70 minutes ahead his opponent.

"I just beat the best musher in the world," the 37-year-old throat cancer survivor said after he crossed the finish line under Nome's burled arch. Fans mobbed Mackey along the final 10 blocks, whooping and cheering and slapping his hand while chanting his name.

"He baited me to sleep, was waiting until I closed my eyes," said King, who won in 2006. "I didn't open them until after he got out the door."

In its 36th running, the Iditarod commemorates a run by sled dogs in 1925 to deliver lifesaving diphtheria serum to Nome. The modern-day Iditarod trail crosses frozen rivers, dense woods and two mountain ranges, then goes along the dangerous sea ice up the Bering Sea shore.

Mackey's win was a repeat of his 2007 feat, when he became the first musher to win back-to-back runs in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and the Iditarod. Last month, he won his fourth straight Yukon Quest and headed into the Iditarod, aiming for another double win.

"I'm not much to brag very often, but damn, I'm going to this time," said Mackey, from Fairbanks, whose father and brother won past Iditarods. "I don't know exactly how to explain it. I'm just blessed with an incredible dog team."

Mackey used many of the same dogs that competed in those races in the trek across some of Alaska's harshest terrain.

At the Nome finish line, his family greeted him and he took congratulatory phone calls from his father, Dick Mackey, and Gov. Sarah Palin.

Palin told Mackey: "You're a hero, and truly an inspiration to all of us."

For much of the race Mackey tussled for the lead with King, who closely tailed him from checkpoint to checkpoint. Mackey also struggled with dogs stricken with diarrhea and slowed by unseasonably warm weather that marked much of the trail.

But Mackey's team was in better health in White Mountain, where mushers are required to take an eight-hour break before heading up the icy Bering Sea coast for the 77-mile homestretch to Nome.

"They're the best dogs, hands-down," Mackey said.

Mackey's dogs also quarreled on the trail. He had to drop Hobo -- a leader Mackey called the speed and driving force of the team -- who was badly injured in an ongoing rivalry with Larry, another leader considered the brains of the pack. Some of his dogs were coughing and one was in heat.

King, a 51-year-old musher from Denali Park, ran most of the trail with a full team of 16 dogs that looked remarkably fresh and alert as the race progressed.

King finally dropped two dogs Tuesday at the checkpoint in White Mountain. When he crossed the finish line at 79 minutes after Mackey, the winner was there to shake his hand.

"It was tough competition, but an easy race," King said at the burled arch.

Running a competitive race for third place were Ramey Smyth of Willow, Ken Anderson of Fairbanks, Martin Buser of Big Lake and Hans Gatt, a three-time Yukon Quest winner from Whitehorse, Yukon.

Twelve mushers scratched since the start of the Iditarod and one withdrew. The last was 43-year-old Steve Madsen of Cougar, Wash., who scratched Tuesday in Galena, citing concern for the health of his 11-dog team. Counting Mackey and King, 82 mushers were in the running.

Three dogs died in this year's race. A 7-year-old male, who showed signs of pneumonia, died Saturday. A 3-year-old female was struck by a snowmobile, and a 4-year-old male died Tuesday.

A necropsy will attempt to determine the cause of death of the two dogs, Iditarod officials said.

This year, organizers introduced a new tracking system that let fans follow online the real-time progress of 18 top mushers. Officials hope to expand the system to all participants in future races. Mackey and King each carried one of the devices.

Mushers compete for a piece of an $875,000 purse, to be paid out among the top 30 finishers to reach Nome. Mackey won $69,000 and a new truck.