Next week Lance Mackey will choose 16 of his 120 huskies, tie them to his sled and try to become the first musher to win five straight Iditarods. But even that can't compete with his other triumphs, over cocaine addiction and throat cancer
This is an article from the March 7, 2011 issue
They call it the Last Great Race on Earth, and it can do strange things to a person. The sleep deprivation, the long dark nights, the piercing cold that shreds the connection between mind and body—it's not unheard of for an Iditarod musher smack in the middle of the frozen Bering Sea to stare into the bright sunlight and, convinced a rogue warm spell has swept in, start ripping his clothes off at -50°. Lance Mackey once saw an Inuit woman smiling at him along the course. Or so he thought until he returned the greeting and found himself waving at a lonely snow bank.
So it would not have been far-fetched to think that Mackey had spilled his marbles into Norton Sound late in the running of the 2007 Iditarod, the 1,161-mile dogsled race across Alaska. He was in the lead with no competitors in sight, just five miles from the finish line on Front Street in Nome, when he decided to slow down.
This was before Mackey had won a single Iditarod, let alone four straight; before he used what he calls his marathon style—catnapping as his sled moves and covering 100-mile chunks at a moderate pace without prolonged rest, instead of sprinting from rest stop to rest stop like most other racers—to win an unprecedented double (the Yukon Quest, the world's other 1,000-mile dogsled race, and just weeks later the Iditarod) not once but twice; before he became so dominant that slower competitors complained they had no chance to finish within five days of him (the requirement for an official place and a commemorative belt buckle); and before a rival pushed for drug testing at the 2010 Iditarod, suspecting that Mackey's secret was his prescription for medical marijuana to alleviate the side effects of cancer treatment. (Mackey abstained during the race and still won.)
On that day in March 2007 when he stopped on the ice atop the Bering Sea, Mackey had not yet accomplished any of that. Yet there he was, yelling "Whoa!" and bringing his sled to a complete stop. He walked to the head of his team, threw his arms around the gray-and-white muzzle of his lead dog, an Alaskan husky named Larry, and told him, "Life just changed." Then he went down the line crying and thanking each dog on his team.
In his mind Mackey also thanked his wife, Tonya, whom he had known since the second grade in Wasilla, Alaska. Ten years earlier they had both been addicted to cocaine and were in the habit of using Amanda, Tonya's nine-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, as their designated driver. When they finally decided to get clean, they left their home in Nenana, Alaska, on a single night's planning and moved 465 miles south to Kasilof, on the Kenai Peninsula. It was June 2, 1998, Lance's 28th birthday. In Kasilof they spent the summer living under a tarp on the beach with Amanda and Tonya's other daughter, Brittney, then eight. The entertainment center was a battery-powered TV that Tonya wired to two large speakers, and dinner was campfire-cooked flounder that the kids picked off the beach. Together, Lance and Tonya went cold turkey, and as soon as he made enough money—he worked on a construction crew, on fishing expeditions and at a local sawmill—they made a down payment on some property in the woods three miles from the beach. There they built a log house and insulated it with clothes from the Salvation Army.
With his old addiction out of the way, Lance threw himself into a new one: raising sled dogs. His neighbors included well-known mushers, and that rekindled his childhood passion for the sport. He began by taking in street mutts and other mushers' castoffs—the kind of dogs Lance could relate to. He couldn't afford the sleekest, fastest huskies, so he bred dogs that could endure. Dogs like Rosie ("a trotting tornado," he calls her) that he bought for $100. His winning bloodlines began when he bred Rosie to a friend's dog named Doc Holliday, another husky that couldn't win a sprint but would eat anytime food was set down before him and had the Arctic-adapted webbed feet that make for a low-maintenance distance runner.
Mackey had enough dogs to run a competitive team—45, including 15 puppies—in time to enter the 2001 Iditarod. He finished in 12 days, 18 hours, 35 minutes and 13 seconds, good enough for 36th place. Throughout the race, though, he was plagued by what he at first thought was an abscessed tooth. But abscessed teeth don't cause severe headaches, blurry vision and blackouts, so Mackey went directly from the finish line to Nome's regional hospital. What he had was throat cancer, which had been repeatedly misdiagnosed. Less than 10 days after his first Iditarod, he went into the kind of surgery before which the doctor tells relatives to say anything they might regret leaving unsaid. But Tonya was so confident of Lance's recovery that she kept his breeding program going so he wouldn't miss a beat when he returned to racing.
The surgeons removed a softball-sized tumor along with skin and muscle tissue surrounding it. Mackey was left with such paper-thin skin on the right side of his neck, over his carotid artery, that doctors told him one bad scratch from a dog would kill him even if he were standing in the ER, much less out on the trail. He had to learn to keep his throat moist so he could breathe, because his salivary glands had also been removed in the surgery. And it took some time for him to regain dexterity in his left hand after he persuaded a doctor to cut off the index finger, which throbbed with pain from nerve damage caused by radiation treatments.
Mackey entered the 2002 Iditarod with a feeding tube in his stomach, but he scratched after 440 miles. He competed in smaller races the next two years and returned to the Iditarod in 2004. By 2007 he was a contender. His cancer was and still is in remission, though he suffers lingering pain and other side effects from the radiation treatment, for which he has the marijuana prescription.
During the '07 Iditarod, as Mackey led for the first time ever, one of the runners on his sled broke and left him balancing on a single strip of plastic in back. He called Tonya at the video store she managed in Fairbanks and said he needed a new sled within eight hours, when he would arrive at the next checkpoint, in McGrath, more than 200 miles from Fairbanks. Tonya slammed down the phone, had a short cry over the impossibility of pulling off the job and then got on the phone again. On her seventh call she found a pilot who could be ready for takeoff in 30 minutes. To get the $1,200 he asked for, Tonya went deep into her Rolodex and remembered that a friend who was a distributor for Alaskan Brewing Co. had once said, "If you ever need anything... ." When she reached him he didn't hesitate to give out his credit card number. Seven-and-a-half hours later a replacement sled arrived at the McGrath checkpoint.
So maybe it makes sense that Mackey stopped on that sea ice, with tears freezing to his cheeks, to thank his dogs. He'd been crying for 77 miles as he pulled clear of the field, thinking of how he'd almost died from drug addiction and from cancer and remembering all the people who had supported him and the ones who had given up on him. And after nine days alone with his dogs, he thought about how hard it would be to return to the world of humans.
"I'm going to get to the finishing chute," he recalls thinking, "and with all the people and the media, I won't get to tell my dogs how proud I am of them. This was something I'd dreamed about since I was a little boy."
Every once in a while, something happens in sports that is so inconceivable that nobody considered making a rule to deal with it. Such was the finish of the 1978 Iditarod.
Dick Mackey was a founder of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, in 1973. He would become fond of saying, "You ain't nothing as a musher unless you win the Iditarod." So it didn't sit too well with him that he placed no higher than sixth in his first five attempts.
Dick's son Lance was only seven years old during the '78 race, but he can remember the commotion as his father, running beside his sled and nearly suffocating in his parka, barreled down Front Street neck and neck with Rick Swenson, the defending champion, who'd also jumped off his sled to run. Mackey's lead dog crossed the finish line first, at which point Mackey collapsed to the ground and his team stopped, straddling the line as Swenson and his team zoomed past. After 14 days, 18 hours, 52 minutes and 24 seconds, the race had come down to the blink of an eye. Who had won depended on whether winning meant getting your entire sled or just your lead dog across the line first. With no rule in place for such a circumstance, race marshal Myron Gavin appealed to common sense. "They don't take a picture of the horse's ass, do they?" he said. Thus it was that Dick Mackey became an Iditarod champion and his son's hero.
"I was standing right at the finish line," Lance says. "It was exciting, it was dramatic, it was emotional. It was embedded in my head. I have no doubt that something in that moment, in that one second, affected my passion or my drive or my commitment. It not only changed my dad's life, it changed mine."
So imagine the crushing blow Lance felt when he was 10 years old and his mother, Kathie, took him and his younger brother, Jason, to the Wasilla airstrip to watch planes take off and to explain to them that a divorce meant that they might see even less of Dad, who was often gone anyway, off on construction projects as an ironworker. With his father absent and his mother working tirelessly as a bush pilot and a dishwasher to support her two sons, Lance was free to look for trouble. He excelled at finding it, and by the time he was 15 the arrests were mounting: consumption of alcohol by a minor, drunk and disorderly, fighting, public urination. Before he was old enough to drive, he stole Kathie's checkbook, bought a '68 Dodge Charger and drove north to pawn three guns he'd swiped from the family's gun cabinet. (His mother didn't press charges, and Lance returned the Dodge to the seller.)
Kathie decided Lance was due for some face time with his father. So she sent him up above the Arctic Circle to be with Dick, who was now selling food out of a converted school bus to truckers on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. It was the start of a lucrative restaurant and service station that would become the town of Coldfoot, Alaska (pop. 13). Kathie also thought Lance would benefit from some time away from his miscreant friends. But Lance, who was already using marijuana and dabbling in speed and cocaine, says, "The truck drivers were as bad [a bunch] of junkies as anybody you ever met." He learned to barter a tire change for drugs.
Lance felt more like Dick's employee than his son, and his errant attempts to get his father's attention—he used Dick's truck to run over all the cones marking the local airstrip—only brought him a few minutes of scolding. So after two years in Coldfoot, Lance returned to Wasilla and resumed his life of petty crime. Until the day, when he was nearly 18, that his mother finally refused to go through the Saturday ritual of picking him up from jail.
After that Lance made for Kodiak Island, on the Gulf of Alaska, and then Dutch Harbor, on the Bering Sea. He worked for 10 years as a commercial fisherman, mostly on long-liners. All the dogs that had belonged to his dad and to him had been sold or given away. His Iditarod dream was essentially dead. But even so, Lance would occasionally tell his crewmates—many of whom were from Mexico and didn't know that dogsledding was a sport—that someday he would win the Iditarod. "I always thought I would," he says. "I just didn't know when. Or how many times."
Tonya would go back to living under the tarp on the beach in a second. Not that she's in the lap of luxury now. The half-built house she and Lance bought in Fox, Alaska, after he won his first Iditarod, still has exposed wiring in the kitchen, and Tyvek sheets cover some of the exterior. There's plenty of work to be done, but Tonya and Lance own everything: the house and the hilltop land that gives them a view of the lights of Fairbanks to the south, the Dodge Charger and three Dodge trucks that came with the four Iditarod wins, and the 120 huskies in the yard, each of which is worth thousands of dollars and is well fed thanks to a sponsorship from Redpaw dog food. The Comeback Kennel, as Lance calls it, has three paid helpers. Then there's Newton Marshall, an unlikely 27-year-old dogsledder from Jamaica who leases a team of huskies from Lance and will race in his second Iditarod next week. Another competitor will be Lance's 19-year-old stepson, Cain Carter, the youngest of Tonya's three children, who will make his Iditarod debut.
Like all true Alaskans, Lance and Tonya like their space. If they can see the smoke from a neighbor's chimney, they probably live too close. "We didn't have nothing then," Tonya says of the time the family lived on the beach, "[but] we were just so happy with each other. Now there's media, or people wanting autographs. On our anniversary we can't [go out] and have a nice dinner."
Then there are the girls in Nome, presenting their chests to be autographed by the top mushers at the Iditarod finish line. The famous seaport isn't much more than a quarter-mile strip whose 15 bars are open from 8 a.m. to 5 a.m., and during Iditarod week it's transformed into Sin City North. "There are probably 15 divorces every year after Nome," Tonya says.
Lance earned the nickname the People's Musher because he has gone out of his way to interact with fans in Nome. For Tonya it's an unwelcome echo of the days before they were together, when Lance would blow $100,000 in annual fishing earnings on cocaine, Crown Royal and hookers. By agreement with his wife, the People's Musher won't be making the bar rounds this year.
Lance has had an on-and-off relationship with his 18-year-old daughter, Alanah, from his first marriage, and he has started to take the fishing trips with his father that should have happened more when he was a child. He also fears having to get a "real job that I don't like, working for an ass," a worry that keeps his eyelids open as he trains dog teams straight through the Alaska winter nights.
Some of Mackey's competitors have begun to copy his tactics, even using dogs that he has sold them. But no one has quite mastered his marathon style. In 2008, when Paul Gebhardt, a top musher who had finished the Iditarod 11 times, went for a long run without sleep, he became so disoriented that he turned around just shy of a checkpoint. But there's no denying that Mackey's rivals are closing in on him. So Mackey must constantly reinvent himself and his team.
He prepares his dogs for anything: He might wake them up and feed them in the middle of the night to teach them that, during a race, the time to eat is whenever the food comes. He might come back to the yard from a training run only to turn around and head right back out, so when the moment comes to capitalize on an opponent's rest during the race, the dogs will be ready. He might drive a four-wheeler through the dog yard just to see which dogs will stay calm if a snowmobile comes zooming past at an Iditarod checkpoint.
A sled dog cannot be trained like a house dog, plied with food or cowed by physical punishment. A dog runs a thousand miles only if it wants to. So Mackey talks to his dogs every day and spends hours standing in the dog yard, assessing each dog's temperament and deciding which ones will get along with which in the middle of a blizzard 800 miles into a race.
Mackey doesn't necessarily choose his fastest dogs for the Iditarod team; he chooses the dogs that fit his personality. Like him, they may not be the most impeccable biological specimens; they are among the less well-behaved at the race start, and his competitors often reach higher top speeds on the trail. But his dogs yearn to run. They brood if he doesn't choose them in training. They eat ravenously at every opportunity. They sleep immediately when they have the chance. And they focus on their leader: In a picture Mackey enjoys showing, a moose is crossing his race trail and not a single dog in his team is paying it any mind.
Jeff King, a four-time Iditarod champ who retired last year after Mackey repeatedly kept him from a fifth title, called Mackey the Mozart of dogsled racing, with an unequaled understanding of his dogs' personalities. "Since I was a little boy," Mackey says, "I've always been infatuated by what motivates a dog to pull down the trail."
Mackey is already the only musher to win four straight Iditarods. On March 5 he will again start the trek across the width of Alaska, attempting to become the second musher, along with Rick Swenson, to win a fifth Iditarod—and the only one to win five consecutively. You can bet that the man who slinked out of a checkpoint while King slumbered (2008 Iditarod) and made a 130-mile run with no rest (2010) will do something else that nobody in the 38-year history of the race ever has. And no matter what place he's in 10 miles from the finish line, Mackey will stop on the Bering Sea ice just outside Nome, as he has every year since '07, and tell each and every dog just how far they've come together.