NOME - Three-time defending champion Lance Mackey is poised to claim his fourth consecutive win in the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race over a route beset by bitter cold.
Mackey was the first out of the checkpoint of Elim, 123 miles from the finish line in Nome and 28 miles from the next checkpoint at the Inupiat Eskimo village of Golovin. Mackey left Elim with 11 dogs at 1:06 p.m. Alaska Daylight Time Monday.
He was followed more than two and a half hours later by Canada's Hans Gatt, who just earned his fourth win in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. Mackey was runner-up in the Quest this year. He has won the race four consecutive times, including twice when he also won the Iditarod several weeks later.
Gatt, 51, overtook four-time champion Jeff King to chase after Mackey with 12 dogs.
Mackey, however, was nearly a dozen miles ahead of his closest competitor.
"Let's do this," the 39-year-old Fairbanks musher told his team earlier in the village of Koyuk, ruffling one dog's head before taking off - a scene captured in the race's online video magazine, the "Iditarod Insider."
King, 54, who has said this is his last Iditarod, left Koyuk with 13 dogs after resting his team an hour longer than Mackey.
On Monday, Anchorage rookie Emil Churchin became the 14th musher to scratch from the Iditarod.
The 57 remaining teams will continue up the Bering Sea coastline, sometimes traveling on the frozen ice in temperatures that were more than 30 degrees below zero early Monday. This stretch is notorious for fierce winds that can create whiteout conditions in ground storms.
Mackey, a throat cancer survivor, has undergone treatments that left him with circulation problems that make him prone to being cold, and he was feeling it Monday. He had planned on continuing to Elim but stopped in Koyuk to warm up.
"My poor toes and my fingers," he said in an Iditarod Insider video.
Gatt, of the Yukon Territory's Whitehorse, also was struggling with the cold, especially in his hands, as he pulled into Koyuk. Asked if he planned to stay a bit, he said, "Oh, yeah," in a shaky voice.
Also running strong despite the extreme cold were Ken Anderson of Fairbanks and Hugh Neff of Tok.
Meanwhile, a 3-year-old dog in rookie Justin Savidis' team has been found after being lost for nearly five days. The dog was reunited with Savidis late Sunday after being spotted near McGrath and lured in with a salmon carcass. The dog was lost between Nikolai and McGrath after apparently squirming free from his harness.
The front-runners could begin arriving in Nome as early as Tuesday afternoon. They must still take a mandatory eight-hour rest in White Mountain, 77 miles from Nome.
And though the race is nearing its conclusion for the leaders, anything can still happen.
In the 2008 race, Mackey and King were leading neck and neck for much of the route until they reached Elim. That's where Mackey pulled off a stunt that proved to be the turning point.
Mackey arrived at the checkpoint three minutes ahead of his rival, drank coffee and made a show of settling in for a nap. He told checkpoint volunteers to wake him in an hour and - with King snoring - sneaked out of the checkpoint 70 minutes ahead of his opponent.