Lance Mackey Reclaims Lead At Iditarod

Wednesday, March 7th 2007, 1:26 pm

By: News On 6

NIKOLAI, Alaska (AP) _ Lance Mackey snatched back the lead in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, speeding through Ophir on Wednesday as other teams rested.

Four-time champions Martin Buser and Jeff King had breezed through the Nikolai checkpoint and cruised to the front while Mackey slept. The two were resting their teams early Wednesday in Ophir, near the halfway point of the 1,100-mile race, along with Zack Steer, 33, of Sheep Mountain. Steer has run the race twice with a high finish of 14th place.

King, the reigning champion, took a 4 1/2-hour rest in Nikolai before making a nearly 100-mile push to Ophir through the checkpoints of McGrath and Takotna.

Buser, 48, running in his 24th Iditarod, spent just three minutes in Nikolai on the Kuskokwim River, about 770 miles from the finish line at Nome. He took a 5 1/2-hour rest in McGrath.

Mackey, 36, chased the three other leaders out of Takotna on Wednesday, setting out before dawn for the cabin at Ophir.

Mackey is trying to win the 1,100-mile race and follow in the footsteps of his father, Dick, and brother, Rick, who won the race in 1978 and 1983 respectively.

``Things are looking good,'' Mackey said when he arrived at Nikolai.

Mackey, who had not slept since the start of the race in Willow on Sunday, took about seven hours in Nikolai to rest himself and his team.

Mackey said his chances of winning had just improved with two top mushers out of the race after getting injured in what is proving to be one of the roughest Iditarods in years. Eleven mushers had dropped out of the race by Wednesday morning, including two top veterans.

Four-time champion Doug Swingley, 53, of Lincoln, Mont., scratched on Monday after taking a spill and getting injured in a stretch of icy trail a few miles before Rainy Pass in the Alaska Range. Swingley was second last year.

DeeDee Jonrowe, 53, who finished fourth last year, also bowed out of her 25th Iditarod on Monday after taking several nasty falls on the same section of trail between Finger Lake and Rainy Pass.

Aliy Zirkle, 37, of Two Rivers, who pulled into Nikolai at about the same time as Zack Steer, 33, of Sheep Mountain, said the trail is treacherous this year.

``I was lucky. That is the only thing I can say,'' she said. ``Somebody is going to get hurt.''

Rookie Sigrid Ekran of Norway, who is a student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, arrived in Nikolai with a broken nose. Her sled flipped on the trail going down to Rohn.

``I flipped over and I couldn't see anything and I saw a big star,'' she said.

After breaking her nose, her sled and the main line holding her dogs, Ekran was thinking positively. ``Now, I'm thinking nothing will go wrong anymore,'' she said.

Paul Gebhardt, 50, of Kasilof, who finished third last year and was runner-up in 2000, was second into Nikolai. He said he took a bunch of spills on 25 miles of trail that was nothing but tussocks.

``It was really rough,'' he said. ``You would slip and then slide into the trees and off the trail.''

Gebhardt said the frigid winds this year, which were pushing nighttime temperatures to 40 degrees below zero, also are making for a miserable run.

``It seems like it has been in our face the whole time,'' he said.

Mackey also said the trail was extremely rough.

``Oh I haven't had a lot of fun,'' he said, as he put down straw beds for his dogs and fed them a gruel of lamb, beef, fish oil and kibble.

Mackey busted a sled runner when it tipped over going through moguls and around S-turns. He put together a temporary fix using a piece from a wooden cross-country ski. The fix held for about 2 1/2 hours.

``It worked perfect but just not long enough,'' he said.

For the rest of the ride into Nikolai, Mackey said he just tried to keep going and figure out how to ride a sled with one good runner.

Mackey, who just won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race for the third time, said most of the 16 dogs in his team ran in the Quest.

``This is one of the things people say can't be done,'' Mackey said of his chances of winning both the Quest and the Iditarod in the same year. ``I'm trying to prove it can.''

Eighty-two teams started the race Sunday from Willow, about 80 miles northwest of Anchorage. As of Tuesday evening, 10 teams had scratched.

The first team is expected to cross the finish line in Nome, a historic gold mining town on the Bering Sea on Alaska's western coastline with a rough and tumble frontier spirit, in about nine days.

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