NULATO, Alaska - Defending champion Lance Mackey was the first musher out of this Yukon River checkpoint Saturday in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, leaving with a team he said was not running at full-throttle.
"I'm not sure they're going to have what it takes," Mackey said of his 14-dog team before leaving Nulato at 2:49 p.m. to head to Kaltag 42 miles downriver. "But I'm not giving up. A lot can happen between now and Nome."
The 37-year-old Fairbanks musher also was the first to reach this old Russian trading post, 700 miles into the 1,100-mile race to Nome. He arrived with 14 dogs exactly two hours ahead of four-time champion Jeff King, whose 16 dogs looked alert and fresh despite the long trek on the Yukon.
Mackey said his own dogs were finally responding to medicine for lingering diarrhea that's affected their appetites. His team, which thrives in subzero weather, also has struggled with inertia brought on by unseasonably warm conditions along the trail.
Using many of the same dogs, Mackey last year became the first musher to sweep the 1,100-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and the Iditarod. He also won the Yukon Quest last month with many of the same dogs that are running in this Iditarod.
"I think Jeff is traveling a little faster right now," Mackey said in Nulato, fretting that King's dogs will take over the lead. "I'm going to do everything I can to keep that from happening. But in all honesty, I think he's in control."
Before heading off to the village school for a nap, the 51-year-old King tended to his team, throwing the dogs a pre-meal snack of frozen meat.
"Here you go," he said as he scattered straw on the snow. "That what you looking for?"
Asked if he planned to take all 16 dogs back on the trail with him, King said, "I believe so. They're all fine."
And sure enough, when King left Nulato at 4:32 p.m., his entire team went with him.
Rookie musher John Stetson of Duluth, Minn., scratched Saturday in Cripple following the early morning death of a 7-year-old male dog on his team. Stetson, who was 61st in the standings, cited the death of Zaster as well as concerns over sick dogs as his reasons for scratching.
Stetson left Zaster with officials at the Ophir checkpoint at 2 a.m. on Friday. The dog had been showing signs of pneumonia.
A necropsy will be conducted in an attempt to determine the cause of death, said Iditarod race marshal Mark Nordman.