EAGLE ISLAND - Lance Mackey, the defending champion of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, arrived at the Eagle Island checkpoint on the frozen Yukon River hours ahead of the competition.
With more than a third of the way to go to the finish line in Nome, Mackey said he liked the way things were shaping up this year. But, he said, anything can happen, and usually does, in the 1,100-mile Iditarod.
"Things look good at this moment," said Mackey, who won in 2007 and 2008. "I'm ecstatic with where I'm at with the team. I can honestly say this team has a good a shot as any to win this race."
Mackey knows better than to relax too much.
"There are a bunch of really good teams right behind me," Mackey said, shortly before mushers Sebastian Schnuelle and Aaron Burmeister pulled into the checkpoint and settled their teams next to his.
"Grand Central," Mackey said. "Time to get moving."
He didn't. Within minutes, Mackey was laughing, swapping trail stories and sipping on noodle soup while his dogs continued to snooze in the sun on beds of straw.
Mackey had a bit of time to spare. He'd arrived at Eagle Island four hours ahead of Schnuelle and Burmeister, both of whom had yet to complete a mandatory 8-hour rest on the Yukon. Mackey completed the requirement in Anvik.
Mackey got himself into the lead by running his team from Takotna to Anvik, 115 miles or more, without taking a break except to stop every two hours and snack the team. The run is considered long, even by long-distance dog mushers.
Mackey then rested his team for eight hours in Anvik and traveled 78 miles at night along the Yukon in temperatures dipping to 25 below zero to reach Eagle Island on Saturday morning, a checkpoint consisting of a half-dozen yellow arctic tents and a toilet in the open made from blocks of snow.