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KOYUK, Alaska - Defending champion Jeff King figures a fifth win in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race isn't realistic unless Lance Mackey slows down.
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"He's going to be tough to beat," King said after arriving in Koyuk, an Eskimo village of 350 people on Alaska's western coastline.
King mushed about 60 miles - one of his shorter runs of this Iditarod - along the coast and across the frozen Bering Sea to reach the checkpoint less than 200 miles from the race finish in Nome.
"I don't think I'm going to win this one if something doesn't happen to Lance," the Denali Park musher said after bedding his dogs down next to the team of another four-time winner, Martin Buser of Big Lake, who was third into Koyuk.
The 36-year-old Mackey, from Fairbanks, is trying to become the first musher to win both the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and the 1,100 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in the same year. The distance is equivalent to driving a dog team from New York City to Miami. Mackey got one week off between the end of the Quest and the start of the Iditarod.
Mackey, running in his sixth Iditarod, also is trying to join his father, Dick Mackey, and brother, Rick, as Iditarod champions. He arrived in Koyuk about 6 hours ahead of King and more than 4 hours ahead of Buser. If either of them won, they would join Rick Swenson of Two Rivers as the race's only five-time winners. Swenson, running his 31st Iditarod, last won in 1991. He was in 29th position Monday.
Dick Mackey beat Swenson for the win in 1978 in what was the closest finish in Iditarod history. He crossed the finish line a second ahead of Swenson. Rick Mackey won in 1983. Each of the Mackeys won the race only once.
Lance Mackey - coming off his third consecutive win in the Quest - is wearing bib No. 13 in the Iditarod - the same number that his father and brother wore when they became champions.
At the start of the race, King described his team as "fast." On Monday, with about 171 miles to go before the finish line in Nome, he said his team was "not all that brisk but steady."
King, 51, said, for him at this stage of his mushing career, it's first place or nothing. He really doesn't care about placing any lower. King won the race in 1993, 1996, 1998 and last year.
"I have not reached my goals with this team in the race," King said.
Zack Steer, 33, of Sheep Mountain - who was fourth into Koyuk, pulling in behind Paul Gebhardt, 50, of Kasilof and Buser - said he didn't expect to be having such a great run.
"If someone told me I would be in the top five this late in the race, I would have told them they were a liar," Steer said, as he tossed frozen salmon steaks to his dogs. "This is beyond my original expectations."
Steer is racing in only his fourth Iditarod. His best finish was 14th in 2000.
As well as he's doing, Steer said Mackey and Gebhardt, who left Koyuk about 20 minutes after Mackey, are going too fast for him to catch them.
Mackey rested his team for about three hours before heading to the next checkpoint at Elim 48 miles away. Gebhardt, who finished third last year, likes to camp out on the trail instead of resting in the checkpoints. He stopped just long enough to check in and grab a bale of straw for his dogs.
Steer said he planned on giving his team at least a 6-hour rest in Koyuk after doing a 100-mile run to get there.
"I hope I didn't take too much oomph out of them," he said. "They have a well-deserved dinner and nap coming."
Two-time champion Robert Sorlie of Norway, who was in 12th position, said Monday the leaders are too far ahead for him to catch.
Also on Monday, Canadian musher Karen Ramstead scratched from the race at the Grayling checkpoint after one of her dogs died.
Race officials said she wanted to be with her family to grieve the loss of Snickers, a 6 1/2-year-old female.
The dog died Sunday night, about seven hours after Ramstead and her 14 dogs pulled into the Grayling checkpoint. A necropsy will be conducted in an attempt to determine the cause of the dog's death, officials said.
Eighty-two teams started the race in Willow. Twenty have scratched. The winner is expected to arrive in Nome on Tuesday or later.