NOME - Lance Mackey picked up a few rewards on his way to winning an unprecedented fourth consecutive win in the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The 39-year-old musher from Fairbanks stopped to pick up a moose rack along the trail, and, 10 miles from the finish line in Nome Tuesday, he spent five minutes digging up a pair of caribou antlers that he used as a sort of hood ornament on the homestretch.
In between those two finds, Mackey was taking a break in the hills behind the village of Ruby to feed his dogs and enjoy the sunset a bit when he noticed he might get something else out of this trip, too.
"Turned around and realized it was a nice time to conceive a litter of puppies," he said to a room full of fans hanging on to his every word soon after his team coasted up the main street of this old Gold Rush town.
Hundreds of fans bundled up against temperatures near zero to cheer on the plain-spoken cancer survivor, the first musher in the event's 38-year history to win four straight races. He finished the race in eight days, 23 hours and 59 minutes - the second-fastest finish in race history.
For winning, Mackey gets a new Dodge truck and $50,400.
"These are my heroes right here," Mackey said seconds after crossing the finish line as he was giving his 11 dogs a pat on their heads and a kiss. He then planted a kiss on his new red truck and later posed with two of his lead dogs, Maple and Rev, who wore garlands made of yellow roses.
"Good job, Lance!" a fan shouted, to more cheers.
"You the man!" shouted another fan.
Mackey said his relationship with his team is more rewarding than winning another truck.
"They might not be the fastest team in this race but I think they have the biggest hearts," he said.
The Iditarod kicked off March 6 with a ceremonial start in Anchorage. That was followed by the competitive start the following day in Willow when 71 teams took to the Iditarod trail and headed to Nome.
This year's purse was significantly less than last year when Mackey took home a truck and $69,000. The total purse is $590,000 - down from a high of $925,000 in 2008. Iditarod officials said the struggling economy caused some sponsors to pull their support for the race.
Much of the race again this year was a duel between Mackey - whose father Dick and brother Rick are past winners - and another mushing royal, four-time champion Jeff King of Denali Park. King has said this will be his last Iditarod.
Mackey said that over the years, he's been willing to gamble and did so again this year with a "monster run" that started in Nulato. After a 42-mile run to Kaltag, King stopped but Mackey, known for his ability to run his dogs long distances with little rest, pushed on another 90 miles to Unalakleet on Alaska's west coast, taking a lead he never gave up.
"It worked. I capitalized on that hour, hour-and-a-half lead," Mackey said.
King cut his rest in Unalakleet, but Mackey widened the lead after that.
Ten-year-old Abby Ardoin of Friendswood, Texas, was among hundreds of local and faraway fans at the finish line. She's been obsessed with the Iditarod half her life and finally talked her dad, Richard Ardoin, into flying to Nome to catch the winner coming in. Seconds after Mackey stopped to greet her, the girl said she was more than excited.
"It's more better than I'd ever dreamed," she said.
In the final stretch of the race, Hans Gatt of Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, chased Mackey hard, pushing ahead of King in Elim on Monday. The 51-year-old musher is a four-time winner of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, earning a record finish in February.
On Tuesday, Gatt arrived with 11 dogs a little more than an hour after Mackey to place second, finishing in nine days, one hour and four minutes. That's the Iditarod's fourth-fastest finish ever.
King, 54, was third, completing the race in nine days, two hours and 22 minutes. His last Iditarod win was in 2006, before he relinquished the crown to Mackey.
Mackey greeted both of his rivals at the finish line.
This year's Iditarod was marked by bitter cold that plunged to 30 below, further chilled by powerful winds in sections of the trail. Mackey, whose cancer treatments left him with circulation problems, complained the cold was affecting his hands and feet.
Ken Anderson was the fourth musher into Nome, arriving Tuesday night with a time of nine days, six hours and 25 minutes. He was followed by John Baker, who finished in nine days, seven hours and seven minutes.
As of Tuesday evening, 15 mushers had scratched from the race.
Mackey, who also has four consecutive wins in the Yukon Quest - two of which were won back-to-back with the Iditarod - said going into this Iditarod that he planned to sit out both long-distance races and focus on mid-distance races on the lower 48 circuit. After Tuesday's win, he said he probably could both try for a fifth Iditarod win and run the shorter races as well. But for now, he wasn't planning that far ahead.
"I'm at the moment pretty content with what I've got going today," Mackey said. "I'm thinking about tomorrow, tomorrow."
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