NIKOLAI (AP) -- With a near-perfect trail and a powerful dog team in front of him, four-time Iditarod champion Doug Swingley says he fought the impulse to compete in the first couple days of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
''You don't know how hard those first few days were,'' Swingley said early Thursday morning after reaching this small village on the Kuskokwim River.
The 48-year-old musher sat in the school cafeteria eating warmed-over moose stew as he talked about his decision to take a sabbatical from the race and about his plans for the future. Those plans include a wedding at the end of the race in Nome.
Mushers and race fans were stunned when, two days into the race, Swingley announced that he was retiring from Iditarod competition. The man seen as most likely to claim a fifth Iditarod victory and fourth consecutive win was bowing out. The defending champion wouldn't be defending anything.
Some race watchers thought it was a ruse to get the other teams to slow down so he could overtake them later. But as he fell farther behind the front-runners, it became clear that was not the case.
Swingley said he had made up his mind almost a year ago to step back from the race, but wanted a victory lap to enjoy the scenery and the people on his trip up the trail.
''I have never gotten to run a fun Iditarod, just to relax and visit with the people,'' he said.
Swingley's competitive instincts, though, made it difficult to hold back during the first few days of the race. He would calculate how fast his team could travel to the next checkpoint and compare that time with what other top teams were doing. ''Then I'd stop, get off the sled, pet everybody, let the feeling pass and get on with my vacation,'' Swingley said.
And it has been a great vacation so far, he said, with plenty of long breaks, perfect weather, a well-groomed trail and a dog team that would happily go much faster.
''I'm having a blast,'' said Swingley, who is traveling in the back of the pack for the first time. He arrived in Nikolai late Wednesday night in 50th place. Two of those he is traveling with are his Lincoln, Mont. neighbors, Jason Barron and Barron's wife, Harmony Kanavle.
During the run from Rohn to Nikolai, they took an eight-hour break at the Bear Creek Cabin. The leisurely pace has made it feel like his first time up the trail, Swingley said.
''In some ways I'm a rookie. Some people had to show me around the Finger Lake checkpoint because I'd never been there,'' he said.
Swingley arrived in Nikolai with all 16 dogs with which he'd started the race. Pulling into the checkpoint under a starry sky with temperatures well below zero, the dogs were frisky and bright-eyed as veterinarians examined them.
Swingley said he would like to arrive in Nome with all 16. It would be lead dog Stormy's last trip up the Iditarod trail, he said.
He laughs at the suggestion that he's not competing because his team isn't very good. He describes the team as unbelievable. As Jason Barron sat nearby, eating pizza, Swingley asked him what he thought of the team.
''Kinda slow, mediocre. Not bad for a back-of-the-pack team,'' Barron said with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
But it was more than just the desire for a pleasant camping trip with his dogs that prompted Swingley to bow out of the race. Alaskans never quite warmed to Swingley, the only non-Alaskan ever to win the Iditarod.
''The fact that I'm tired of competing in the Iditarod has to do with a lot of things. The media, remarks from my competitors, Alaskans' snide remarks. I don't enjoy that part at all. So the easiest thing is to back away from it,'' Swingley said.
Swingley's Iditarod record is impressive. He won top rookie honors in 1992 when he finished ninth. It was the best rookie finish in 15 years. He has finished in the top 10 in his 10 previous Iditarods.
But he still struggles with the resentment of some Alaska mushers.
''They all want a piece of me, so now they've got it. They all beat me,'' he said of his competitors. ''Without the Iditarod in my life it's a lot easier to relax and enjoy things. Now that there's no more kicking around Doug Swingley I hope they find somebody else to kick around.
Swingley says that, with the Iditarod off his plate, his goals are to have fun and enjoy the rest of his life. He earned his private pilot's license last November and recently purchased a Cessna 180. He plans to continue training dogs and may compete in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, the 1,000-mile race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon.
His fiance, Melanie Shirilla, will be competing in her first Iditarod next year and Swingley may follow her up the trail in his plane.
But, first things first. There will be a wedding when he gets to Nome. Stormy will be a ring bearer.
''I think Melanie's in Anchorage looking for a fleece wedding gown,'' Swingley said.
What would it take to get him back in this year's race?
''Maybe if there's a storm on the coast and it stops everybody, I'll catch up. God forbid,'' he said laughing.
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