Two peninsula mushers scratch from Iditarod

Posted: Sunday, March 10, 2002

Two area Iditarod mushers have been forced to pack up their dogs and head back to the peninsula.

Kasilof's Lance Mackey had high hopes for this year's race. Having recently overcome a bout with cancer, Mackey was enthusiastic about his chances for a comeback this year.

"I would love to finish in the top 20 this year," Mackey said prior to this year's race.

"But realistically, I'm shooting for the top 30. I took my time last year and finished only six away," Mackey said.

However, Mackey's dogs were hit by a string of injuries, illness and bad luck that proved too much to overcome, forcing him to scratch on Friday in the Ophir checkpoint, nearly halfway through the 1,150-mile race to Nome.

"Six of his dogs were injured, and four were in heat. Then some got sick, and between the ones in heat and the ones trying to get to them ... it was just too much for the dogs," said Mackey's wife, Tonya, on Saturday.

"The relationship he has with those dogs is just phenomenal. He just didn't think it was fair to push them."

She said her husband was pretty upset when he realized he wouldn't get to finish the race.

"He called yesterday and he was just tore apart," she said.

Having to scratch won't keep Mackey away from Nome though. Tonya said she and the couple's two daughters plan to fly to Nome Monday to meet Lance and watch the finish of the race.

"I guess he called today and said, 'pack your bags.' He'll get to go up and relax and have a little fun with the other mushers," she said.

Tonya wasn't sure whether Lance will run the Iditarod next year. His plan before this year's race was to compete in the Yukon Quest next year. She said she does not know if this year's scratch will affect his future plans, but she says there's no way Lance is giving up on racing.

"He's not much of a quitter," she said.

Moose Pass rookie musher Judy Merritt wasn't dreaming of a top-20 finish. She was just hoping to make it to Nome.

However, just six miles outside of the Alaska Range checkpoint of Rohn on Wednesday night, Merritt's dreams, and her sled, were dashed against a tree in the infamous Dalzell Gorge. The crash left Merritt uninjured, but the impact broke a runner completely from the sled, making it impossible for her to continue. She was forced to scratch from the race.

"The dogs were looking at me like, 'c'mon mom, let's go,'" Merritt said by phone Saturday from her home, where she was already busy getting her team ready for next year.

"The dogs were just getting into a rhythm, I was getting into a rhythm. Physically, I'm okay, but mentally I'm a little bummed," she said.

She said she tried to improvise a makeshift fix for the sled, but her quick fix wasn't up to the demands of the trail.

"I looked at the situation, took and cut down a tree and lashed it to what was left of the sled, but it just wasn't working," she said.

Merritt said she had to sit and wait until Thursday morning before someone came along to help.

"Being a rookie, I didn't know how far it was to Rohn. I had a lot of time to sit there and think. I did not want to try and leave and maybe put the dogs in a bad position, so I just sat there," Merritt said.

Merritt said she was treating her aborted run as a chance to learn more about the race.

"You live and learn by trial and error. It was a big training run ... a learning experience," she said.

The most important lesson she said she learned was to make sure and have the right equipment.

"At the restart, I was sandwiched between Mitch Seavey and Martin Buser, two of the best mushers around. Buser came up to me and said my sled had a bad design. ... He was right on the money. Dean Osmar said the same thing. Nobody could have told me how bad the Dalzell Gorge was," Merritt said.

She said her tough break won't end her dream of finishing the Iditarod.

Merritt said she also plans to run a couple shorter distance races between then and now, most likely the Knik 200 and the Klondike 300 next January. She said the Tustumena 200 might also be an option.

"I've got some good, young dogs. I told them, 'next year, we're going to Nome,'" she said.

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