NIKOLAI - Lance Mackey pulled into Nikolai on Tuesday with a full team of 16 dogs, a grin on his face and a busted runner on his sled.
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Mackey, who's trying to become the third member of his family to win the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, was the first musher to arrive in the village on the Kuskokwim River, about 770 miles from the finish line in Nome.
"I just found out I'm the only one here," Mackey said, as the smile spread across his face. "Things are looking good."
Then four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser beat Mackey out of Nikolai later Tuesday afternoon. The 48-year-old Big Lake musher left the checkpoint at 1:43 p.m., just three minutes after he arrived.
As of 8:52 p.m., Mackey reclaimed the lead after leaving McGrath at 8:37 p.m.
Mackey, from Fairbanks, took a lot more time for rest. The 36-year-old musher pulled into the village shortly after 8 a.m. and left almost two hours after Buser.
Two other top mushers pulled out of the race with injuries in what is proving to be one of the roughest races in years.
Four-time champion Doug Swingley, 53, of Lincoln, Mont., scratched after taking a spill in a stretch of icy trail a few miles before Rainy Pass in the Alaska Range. Swingley was second last year.
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DeeDee Jonrowe, 53, who finished fourth last year, also bowed out of her 25th Iditarod on Monday after taking several nasty falls on the same section of trail between Finger Lake and Rainy Pass.
Aliy Zirkle, 37, of Two Rivers, who pulled into Nikolai at about the same time as 33-year-old Zack Steer, of Sheep Mountain, said the trail is treacherous this year.
"I was lucky. That is the only thing I can say," she said. "Somebody is going to get hurt."
Paul Gebhardt, 50, of Kasilof, who finished third last year and was runner-up in 2000, was second into Nikolai. He said he took a bunch of spills on 25 miles of trail that was nothing but tussocks.
"It was really rough," he said. "You would slip and then slide into the trees and off the trail."
Gebhardt said the frigid winds, which were pushing nighttime temperatures to 40 degrees below zero, also is making for a miserable run.
"It seems like it has been in our face the whole time," he said.
To make matters worse, Zirkle said a lot of the teams are going the wrong way out of Rainy Pass because one of the trail markers got knocked down. She went the wrong way, losing 112 hours of running time and forcing her to rest her team longer. In all, she estimates the mistake cost her three hours.
"I was highly bummed," said Zirkle, one of 10 women in this year's race.
Mackey, who is competing in his sixth Iditarod - the same number that was lucky for his father, Dick, and brother, Rick - said his chances of winning got better when Swingley and Jonrowe scratched.
"Two spots opened up right there," Mackey said.
Mackey also said the trail was extremely rough.
"Oh I haven't had a lot of fun," he said, as he put down straw beds for his dogs and fed them a gruel of lamb, beef, fish oil and kibble.
Mackey busted a sled runner when it tipped over going through moguls and around S-turns. He put together a temporary fix using a piece from a wooden cross-country ski.
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