Defending Iditarod Champ in First Place

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Lance Mackey, the defending champion of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, arrived at the Eagle Island checkpoint on the frozen Yukon River hours ahead of the competition.

With more than a third of the way to go to the finish line in
Nome, Mackey said he liked the way things were shaping up this
year. But, he said, anything can happen, and usually does, in the
1,100-mile Iditarod.

"Things look good at this moment," said Mackey, who won in
2007 and 2008. "I'm ecstatic with where I'm at with the team. I
can honestly say this team has a good a shot as any to win this

Mackey knows better than to relax too much.

"There are a bunch of really good teams right behind me,"
Mackey said, shortly before mushers Sebastian Schnuelle and Aaron
Burmeister pulled into the checkpoint and settled their teams next
to his.

"Grand Central," Mackey said. "Time to get moving."

He didn't. Within minutes, Mackey was laughing, swapping trail
stories and sipping on noodle soup while his dogs continued to
snooze in the sun on beds of straw.

Mackey had a bit of time to spare. He'd arrived at Eagle Island
four hours ahead of Schnuelle and Burmeister, both of whom had yet
to complete a mandatory 8-hour rest on the Yukon. Mackey completed
the requirement in Anvik.

Mackey got himself into the lead by running his team from
Takotna to Anvik, 115 miles or more, without taking a break except
to stop every two hours and snack the team. The run is considered
long, even by long-distance dog mushers.

Mackey then rested his team for eight hours in Anvik and
traveled 78 miles at night along the Yukon in temperatures dipping
to 25 below zero to reach Eagle Island on Saturday morning, a
checkpoint consisting of a half-dozen yellow arctic tents and a
toilet in the open made from blocks of snow.

Sixty-seven teams, down from a record 96 teams last year,
started the race six days ago in Willow about 50 miles north of
Anchorage. Three teams have scratched.

The winner, who will get $69,000 and a new pickup truck, is
expected to arrive in Nome next week, perhaps as early as Tuesday.

Musher Hugh Neff, who was fourth into Eagle Island, ran his team
from Shageluk to Eagle Island without resting the team, a total of
130 miles.

"I called it my 'mad Mackey move,"' said Neff, whose best
Iditarod finish was 19th in 2007. He placed second this year in the
1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, behind
Schnuelle, who won it.

"We basically are all racing for second, unless Mackey screws
up somehow," Neff said. "I know Lance well and I know he's hard
to beat."