Swingley says Iditarod career is over

It’s official, at least as official as any announcement of this type gets in distance mushing: Doug Swingley has called it a career.

Swingley at Cripple checkpoint, 2006

“I’m retired,” the four-time Iditarod champion said by phone from his home in Lincoln, Mont., on Thursday, Feb. 21. “I’m living the life of Riley. I’m done. Melanie (Shirilla) and I are into stage racing. We’re still raising Iditarod dogs, but we don’t have any plans on going back.”

Shirilla recently won the tough Wyoming Stage Stop, a race that covers more than 300 miles but more closely follows the format of the Tour de France than the Iditarod. Stage races have a different leg, say 50 miles or 80 miles, each day; mushers and dogs rest for the night, then run a different leg the next day. With the Iditarod, mushers decide when and where they rest, day and night; it’s their call.

Swingley, 54, said his body told him it was time for a change. “I’m just too old to compete at the level I want to compete at,” he said. “It’s an awesome group of dogs, and I don’t have the ability to keep up with them anymore without getting hurt.”

That’s precisely what happened last year on the way up to Rainy Pass checkpoint, although Swingley wasn’t the only musher — young or old — hurt by rough trail conditions at that spot. A narrow trail was covered with ice that angled downhill into trees. Swingley and several other mushers found themselves sliding sideways at top speed into those trees. Others were banged up, but Swingley broke some ribs and was in a great deal of pain by the time he reached Puntilla Lake, where he scratched.

He’s been banged up before. He broke a rib in a previous race, going on to win while keeping the painful injury largely secret from his competitors. And in 2004, Swingley was forced to scratch when his corneas were frosted by cold, windy weather in the Dalzell Gorge, severely blurring his vision.

Swingley first won the Iditarod in 1995, then managed an incredible three-peat in 1999 through 2001. From 1992 through 2001, he always finished within the top 10. His legendary leaders Elmer, Stormy and Peppy became studs for countless other kennels. Along the way, he became known for speaking his mind, having an unquenchable swagger and a sharp sense of humor, which occasionally rubs a few people the wrong way but endears him to many.

Plenty of other mushers have retired in recent years, only to come storming back to sign up once again. Bill Cotter is one. But you get the sense that Swingley’s heart is taking him in a new direction.

Besides keeping a reduced kennel of 35 superior stage-racing sled dogs, Swingley and Shirilla are turning their focus and animal skills toward endurance horse racing. They’re trying to get a horse qualified for the 2010 world championships. “It’s a lot of work,” he said. Instead of being in Alaska in March, the couple will be in New Mexico and Arizona riding horses for 100 miles at a stretch.

The United States is a weak competitor in world distance horse riding competition, Swingley pointed out. “Maybe they need a big-mouthed, ex dog musher.”