NOME — Lance Mackey finished the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race well back in the pack Wednesday but don’t expect the four-time defending champion to lick his wounds for long. He said he’ll be back next year — “no doubt about it.”
Mackey said his expectations for this year’s Iditarod weren’t realized, but he denied being disappointed.
“It would have been a selfish thought to think I could come here again and win with a perfect run,” he said.
John Baker won the 1,150-mile race from Anchorage to Nome on Tuesday for the first time in his 16th attempt. Mackey crossed the finish line Wednesday, nearly 24 hours later, in 16th place.
Mackey said while it took him a while to get his young dogs motivated, especially after he had to drop lead dog Maple from his team, he had a “smoking run” coming into Nome from White Mountain 75 miles away.
Mackey said when he started the race he thought his team could deliver a fifth Iditarod victory. But, he said, several of his dogs showed symptoms of kennel cough and weren’t eating or running well, so he left them to be cared for at the checkpoints. Others had minor injuries and were dropped as well. He started the race with 16 dogs. He finished with seven.
Mackey knew before the halfway point he probably wasn’t going to get a fifth win.
“I don’t know exactly what went wrong. When I left the start I felt I had a team that was difficult to beat,” he said.
When he had to drop Maple, Mackey saw a change in his team. The young dogs were more insecure, looking around instead of straight ahead and seeking direction. Mackey said that’s when he stepped in and became the lead dog. That meant having patience to instruct and guide, and backing off from racing.
He did a lot of running up the hills with his team, a lot of helping them negotiate difficult terrain. He stopped every hour and snacked the dogs, instead of every two hours.
On one of the bigger hills between Elim and Golovin, Mackey said he did the work of several dogs.
“With seven dogs it is not a hill, it is a mountain,” he said. “I was running, kicking, sweating and it seemed like forever.”
There were a couple of times that the 40-year-old musher felt like quitting but it was a fleeting notion.
“I am not a quitter,” he said. “I am not going to go down without a fight.”
Mackey said his team got better as the race went on, traveling the last stretch in excess of 9 mph.
“I can’t even praise them enough for what they’ve done,” Mackey said. “Success is not always about winning.”
He advised the competition not to get comfortable.
“They got their shot once. I will be back,” Mackey said.