ANCHORAGE - Four-time Iditarod champion Doug Swingley must be one of the most practical people on the planet.
When asked why at age 50 he is back competing in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race - willing to hang onto the back of a sled for more than 1,000 bumpy and sometimes hair-raising miles from Anchorage to Nome - his answer is quick and to the point - or is it a put-on?
"I need a new pickup truck. I am tired of these old pickups falling apart. I'll be damned if I'll buy one," Swingley said, from his home in Lincoln, Mont., where a month before the start he was busy making gourmet shrimp and garlic dishes to eat along the trail.
Eighty-seven mushers are signed up for the 2004 Iditarod to start from downtown Anchorage on March 6. Mushers from Alaska, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming are competing, as well as nine other countries including Germany, Italy and Norway.
The Iditarod is held each year to commemorate a 1925 dash to Nome in which sled dogs and mushers delivered lifesaving diphtheria serum to the historic Gold Rush town.
In addition to more than a half-million dollars in prize money earned since competing as a rookie in 1992, Swingley has won four brand new pickup trucks for crossing the finish line first four times. He won in 1995, and then came back to dominate the race in 1999, 2000 and 2001. His prize money now totals $501,615.
Swingley sold two of the top-of-the line trucks donated by an Anchorage dealership to buy a Cessna 180, but still has the two older ones.
"I am in bad need of a new truck. I am hungry for that new truck. That always makes me dangerous, when I'm hungry," Swingley said.
In 2002, he came in 40th after deciding to run a different kind of race. Swingley took his time, enjoyed the scenery, and got married at the end of the trail in Nome to Melanie Shirilla, with one of his favorite dogs acting as ring bearer.
The close-knit community of Alaska mushers has never accepted Swingley, perhaps because of resentment from his winning ways, or perhaps because he was the only non-Alaskan to win the race until last year when Norway's Robert Sorlie won. Sorlie is not competing this year.
Swingley said Sorlie's win may work to his advantage.
"Maybe because a Norwegian won last time, maybe they will want an American to win," he said.
In a 2002 interview with The Associated Press, Swingley said he was taking a break from the race, in part because he was fed up with the resentment, the snide comments from other mushers and the slant the media put on things. He said he hoped they'd find someone new to kick around.
Swingley's had an attitude change since then.
"I don't give a rat's butt about the Alaska mushers," he said. "I have goals for myself. I never race against competition. I consider myself as the ultimate competitor and so I try to beat myself first."
Swingley, who has been described by more than a few mushers as arrogant, bristles at the suggestion he's any different from Martin Buser of Big Lake and Jeff King of Denali Park, the other champions who have dominated the race for a decade or more.
Buser got his fourth win in 2002, the only other racer besides Susan Butcher of Manley to win four times. However, Butcher hasn't raced since 1994 and her last win was in 1990. King has won three times. Rick Swenson of Two Rivers, the only five-time winner, hasn't won since 1991.
"Don't they have a vein of arrogance?" Swingley asks of Buser and King. "You need that confidence to win the Iditarod. Nobody goes into the Iditarod without it and wins. ... If you exude that confidence somebody views it as arrogance."
With a bit more probing, Swingley admits it's not really about the truck. It's about proving that his dog team is the best.
"They are unbelievably athletic and resilient, probably the most resilient dog team I've had," Swingley said. "It is a super dog team."
Swingley's 2004 Iditarod team of 16 dogs contains no rookies. All are at last 3 years old and have gone to Nome before, including a 10-year-old leader, Peppy, that carried him to victory in 2000 and 2001.
"In any bad spots, in any bad circumstances, he is there for me," Swingley said.
To get his team ready, Swingley began serious training in the early fall. He took the dogs on short training runs of two to three miles. Now, he's up to 125-mile runs with lots of overnight camping to mimic the conditions the dogs will encounter on the Iditarod.
Swingley admits to wanting to get one thing back - the course record now held by Buser, who finished the 2002 race in eight days, 22 hours and 46 minutes. Swingley previoudly held the record of nine days and 58 minutes, set in 2000.
"I wouldn't mind getting my record back. Buser beat my overall course record by an hour and a half in 2002," he said.
Swingley is confident it will happen.
"My ideal race plan is so much faster than that," he said.
Buser said he isn't impressed by Swingley's big talk.
"He's pretty famous for not being believed. He talks and nobody really listens," Buser said. "If you look in the records book, the ball is in my court. There is only one person that has ever run under nine days."
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