NOME, Alaska – Defending champion Lance Mackey won the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The 37-year-old throat cancer survivor from Fairbanks and 11 dogs crossed the finish line under Nome's burled arch at 2:45 a.m. ADT Wednesday.
He yelled "Yeah, baby!" as he drove his team down Nome's Front Street. Fans mobbed him along the last stretch.
For much of the 1,100-mile race Mackey tussled for the lead with four-time winner Jeff King of Denali Park, who was about an hour behind Mackey. He also struggled with dogs stricken with diarrhea and slowed by unseasonably warm weather that marked much of the trail.
Wednesday's win was a repeat of the historical feat pulled off by Mackey in 2007 when he became the first musher to win back-to-back runs in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and the Iditarod in the same year.
Mackey was the first musher to leave the last checkpoint before the finish line in Nome. The defending champion left Safety at 11:44 p.m. local time Tuesday on the last 22-mile leg of the 1,100-mile race.
Mackey and his team of 11 dogs averaged 8 mph getting to Safety from White Mountain.
Like Mackey, King and his team of 14 dogs spent only one minute at the Safety checkpoint, pulling out at 12:53 a.m. Wednesday on the run to Nome.
Four strong contenders were racing for third in the 1,100-mile trek to Nome.
Ramey Smyth, Ken Anderson, Martin Buser and Hans Gatt all left White Mountain in the space of a half hour late Tuesday night.
Smyth, tentatively in third place with eight dogs, has run the Iditarod since 1994, missing only one race since. Smyth, a 32-year-old lifelong Alaskan, has been a top-10 finisher four times, with his best showing in fourth place in 2004.
Anderson, with 15 dogs, was runner-up in his first Quest this year, finishing 15 minutes behind Mackey, his neighbor. At the Iditarod's March 1 ceremonial start in Anchorage, the 35-year-old musher said he was hoping for the same friendly rivalry with Mackey but "obviously not" the same finish.
Gatt, with 12 dogs remaining, has run back-to-back runs in the Iditarod and the 1,000-mile International Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race in the same year. But the 49-year-old veteran never came close to matching Mackey's feat. Last year, Mackey became the first musher to win both races in the same year. Mackey, a throat cancer survivor, won his fourth consecutive Quest last month and is aiming for another double win.
"I didn't enjoy running both races," Gatt said earlier at the Ruby checkpoint. He skipped the Yukon Quest this year and is running his best Iditarod ever.
It's probably not going to be enough to beat Mackey and King, who have been running practically neck-and-neck in the last leg of the race.
Mackey's dogs struggled with diarrhea and unseasonably warm temperatures earlier in the race. But they were in noticeably better health in White Mountain, where mushers are required to take an eight-hour break before heading up the icy Bering Sea coast for the homestretch.
"They're starting to perform the way I know they can," Mackey said before leaving the checkpoint. "I think that this crew knows where they're at all of a sudden and they know that it's about over."
King left almost an hour later with 14 dogs. Until White Mountain, he had been running with all 16 dogs.
"However this plays out, I would love an awesome run and wouldn't mind it if Lance stepped on his cape," King said. "It's been an awesome race for me. I've got an incredible team of dogs."
The top 30 finishers will get a piece of the $875,000 purse. The winner gets $69,000 and a $45,000 truck.
Twelve mushers have scratched since the start of the Iditarod and one has been withdrawn. The latest out of the race was 43-year-old Steve Madsen of Cougar, Wash., who scratched Tuesday in Galena, citing concern for the health of his 11-dog team. Eighty-two mushers remain on the trail. Two dogs have died in this year's race, including a 3-year-old female struck by a snowmobile.
In its 36th running, the Iditarod commemorates a run by sled dogs in 1925 to deliver lifesaving diphtheria serum to Nome.