03/23/2011 05:54 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Iditarod Dogs on the Edge

ANVIK -- In only the second Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race of his young career, one of mushing's rising young stars learned that the nuances of dog care for long-distance marathons can take more than just being in tune with your team. By the time Mike Williams Jr. reached this checkpoint, his dogs were noticeably thin. Veterinarians worried they bordered on being too thin, an observation that intensified the scrutiny the 26-year-old experienced in each successive checkpoint along the Yukon River to Kaltag, and from there, overland to Unalakleet and then along the coast of Norton Sound.

The teams of two other mushers -- rookies Brennan Norden from Kasilof and Mike Santos from Cantwell -- also caught the attention of Iditarod veterinarians, teams of which occupy all the race checkpoints. Williams' team would make it to the Nome finish line in 13th place. The teams of Norden and Santos, however, would not finish the race. The race's chief dog doctor, who was traveling the trail with the Iditarod front runners, said after his arrival in Nome that Norden's and Brennan's dogs just weren't healthy enough to keep going.

Realizing this, Iditarod head veterinarian Stuart Nelson said, the mushers decided to pull out of the race.

Williams Jr. managed to hang on thanks to advice from some of the sport's top competitors and veterinarians, who offered advice on changes to the food for his team. Despite their slim frames, Williams' dogs paced with the best of the pack and early on were alongside the top athletes. While he wasn't quite able to keep up with this year's early hot shots in the very front -- mushers like eventual race champ John Baker from Kotzebue and Hugh Neff from Tok, or former four-time Iditarod champions Lance Mackey from Fairbanks and Martin Buser from Big Lake -- he did hold his own among some of the race's toughest competitors: two-time runner-up DeeDee Jonrowe, 2011 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race winner Dallas Seavey from Wasilla and five-time Iditarod champ Rick Swenson from Two Rivers, the Iditarod's only five-time winner.

It was in this same gang of top-tier mushers that Williams Jr. found a few new guardian angels, whether he wanted them or realized it. These mushers, who collectively have raced dozens of Iditarods, knew Williams Jr. must endure this race on his own.

But their adherence to the code of sled-dog racing and sportsmanship led them to gently mentor him.

Lean dogs in the middle of the Iditarod race are a concern to everyone because they may not have the reserves they need to both run hard and keep themselves warm if the weather gets too windy or too cold. The race's veterinarians have the power to sideline an entire team should they deem it necessary. They've done it before -- not often -- but they have done it, according to Nelson, the Iditarod's chief veterinarian. And in this year's race, he gave his vet teams orders to keep a close eye on Williams' dog team as well as a few others closer to the back of the pack.

The situation placed Williams Jr., an Akiak musher and modern heir apparent to a long legacy of Alaska Native mushers, in the middle of a situation so sensitive that Nelson didn't want to speak openly about the team's condition during the race itself. The Iditarod has long been dominated by non-Native mushers. Yanking from the race one of rural Alaska's few bright and rising stars is a decision no one would take lightly. Although Nelson would not say at the time whether this was something veterinarians were actively considering, there were a lot of miles yet to journey between Anvik and the finish line, and dogs generally continue to lose weight as they jump between checkpoints on their way to Nome. Later, with Williams' comfortably having finished his second Iditarod, Nelson admitted that had Williams' team not rebounded, removing his team from the race would have been a real possibility.

"If he would have progressed he probably would have reached that point," Nelson said from Nome.