- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

UNALAKLEET, ALASKA (AP) - Lance Mackey was first to arrive Sunday in the coastal town of Unalakleet but a pack of mushers, including two former champions, were trying to catch him as strategy and mind games came into play in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Mackey pulled into the town about 260 miles from the finish line in Nome shortly after 3 p.m. on Sunday with at least a three-hour lead. Despite frigid temperatures and blustery winds, hundreds of people gathered next to a frozen slough near the town to watch Mackey arrive.

Mackey _ who likes to say he’s not sure about a win until he is across the finish line in Nome _ exuded confidence.

“Awesome, absolutely awesome,” he said, when asked how his team did on the 90-mile stretch of trail from Kaltag. “I’ve got zero issues.”

Mackey said he’d been doing some long runs and the dogs were handling it well. When asked what he was thinking about on the trail, Mackey said, “What color truck I want.”

The winner of this year’s Iditarod will get $69,000 and a new truck. Mackey is still driving a 1997 because he traded in the truck he won last year for a Dodge Charger. The 2007 truck he gave to his wife. Mackey said this time he intends on keeping the truck.

The $610,000 purse will be handed out to the top 30 finishers.

Mackey left the previous checkpoint at Kaltag on the frozen Yukon River at about 4 a.m. Sunday and headed toward Unalakleet. The run through gentle rolling hills and along a river is one of the longest in the 1,100-mile race to Nome.

Canadian musher Sebastian Schnuelle left Kaltag about two hours after Mackey but rested his team only a half-hour, less than the 3 1/2 hours Mackey was able to give his dogs.

Mushers at this point in the race are trying to figure out how much to rest their teams and when to make a move, if possible, in the quest to catch Mackey, the 2007 and 2008 champion.

“It looks like he is definitely running scared now but he is in a good position,” said four-time champion Jeff King, who was second to Mackey last year after Mackey pulled a fast one, sneaking out of a checkpoint ahead of King who was napping and heading toward victory.

King was in third place Sunday, leaving Kaltag, where it was 30 degrees below zero, more than five hours after Mackey.

From Unalakleet, the largest town on the Iditarod trail between Anchorage and Nome, mushers drive their teams along the coast to Nome, an area of trail where storms can quickly move in from the Bering Sea and make or break a musher’s dream of being an Iditarod champion.

Mitch Seavey, the 2004 champion, pulled out of Kaltag 5 minutes after King.

“I would like my chances better if I made up some time last night, but there is still some racing to do,” Seavey said, as he pulled his snow hook and headed his team back on the trail.

King and Seavey passed Schnuelle, who stopped to rest his team, on the way to Unalakleet.

Sixty-seven teams began the race Sunday in Willow about 50 miles north of Anchorage. Three teams scratched and one was withdrawn, leaving 63 teams on the trail to Nome.

Paul Gebhardt, who has twice been runner-up, said the 70-mile run from Eagle Island to Kaltag was chilly, with the mercury dropping to 40 below, but it wasn’t windy. Two years ago, the teams were forced to drive into winds that were 50 mph on the Yukon.

Hugh Neff, who was second in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race this year, taking off less than two weeks before beginning the Iditarod, pulled out of Kaltag 5 minutes behind Seavey. Since 2000, Neff has competed in nine Quests and six Iditarods, wracking up 15,000 or more race miles.

“It’s just an honor to be hanging around these mushers,” said Neff, who has only once finished in the top 20 in the Iditarod.

Neff’s dogs appeared ready to go Sunday morning. Three of them began howling as Neff tucked the last of his things into his sled bag.

“All right, all right,” he told them as they answered back, before the musher and his dogs headed out of town.


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