Hardworking blue-collar nice guy Lance Mackey from Fairbanks today owns the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race the way no one has since Doug Swingley at the dawn of the millennium.
That was the last time any musher won back-to-back Iditarods.
Swingley, with his self-assured cockiness and his Montana street address, was the musher Alaskans loved to hate. For three years running, he rode the trail behind teams that seemed almost invincible, and he left no doubt he was proud of it.
Each March, he'd arrive from Lincoln, Mont., declare he was going to win the 1,100-mile race to Nome, and then, many years, go out and do it. As smart as he was self-assured, Swingley reveled in his role as an Outsider rumored to have devised some secret training program high in the Rocky Mountains.
Surely it was the altitude training -- it had to be, everyone said -- that helped Swingley win three straight in 1999, 2000 and 2001. Swingley just curled the corner of his mouth in a smug smile. He knew he owned the Iditarod.
And now the legacy belongs to Mackey, who is really sort of the anti-Swingley.
A homegrown Alaskan -- the son of 1983 Iditarod champ and sled-dog racing fixture Dick Mackey -- Lance is as down to earth and friendly as they come. Where Swingley at times veered toward taciturn, Mackey is talkative. Where Swingley could appear arrogant, Mackey seems humble.
He's the sort of guy other mushers can't help liking, even when he beats them.
This is no small feat.
When the late Susan Butcher from Manley ruled the Iditarod in the late 1980s, several mushers thought she was full of herself. Even worse -- sometimes much worse -- was said when Rick Swenson, the only five-time Iditarod champ, owned the race in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Don't expect the same for Mackey, even if there are things he has in common with Swingley, Butcher and Swenson.
They have a way with dogs. That's vital to winning any long-distance sled race. A musher doesn't win four straight, 1,000-mile Yukon Quests and two straight Iditarods by making dogs run. He wins by making dogs want to run. There's a big difference.
They're extremely disciplined. This is, in fact, why the 50-something Swingley said he retired this year. It was getting too hard, he said, to maintain the discipline required to train a winning team.
Retired racer Burt Bomhoff, who once harbored dreams of cracking the Iditarod top-10 (he got as close as 12th), remembers how he once tried to hold down a job and train. He couldn't go home after work and have a drink, he said, for fear it would cause him to relax too much.
Instead, he would go home, amp up on coffee, get on the runners of a dogsled and follow teams around until 10 p.m. Then he'd go home exhausted and do it all again the next day.
That's what it took.
"People are thinking (this) is an accident, a fluke,'' Mackey said after the finish in Nome. "Whatever. It's not. It's part of the breeding, part of the training.''
The training is almost endless. It sometimes causes mushers, who spend hundreds of hours alone on the runners, to turn inward. Butcher, in her heyday, once told a magazine writer that she didn't care what happened in the world because all that mattered was her relationship with her dogs.
But Mackey is different.
Almost a social butterfly, the 37-year-old still tends toward boyish outbursts of enthusiasm. On Front Street in Nome on Wednesday, he came in hand-slapping people in the crowd and hugging others in the finishing chute.
When someone handed him a cell phone to talk to his father in Arizona, he just about bubbled over.
Longtime friend and fellow musher Aaron Burmeister, formerly of Nome but now from Nenana, said that is the essential Lance.
"I've known him since childhood,'' Burmeister said. "When his father Dick won the Iditarod, we were his host family in Nome. When Rick (Lance's half brother) won the Iditarod, we were his host family. So we've known (the Mackeys) forever."
Frontrunners in last year's Quest, Burmeister and Mackey agreed they'd split the gold awarded to the first team into Dawson, no matter who it was, to cover both racers' entry fees in the All Alaska Sweepstakes race at the end of this month.
"Lance got it and held to his word. He paid the gold entry fees for the Sweepstakes.''
Burmeister can't think of a more deserving champion.
"He certainly has earned it,'' Burmeister said. "It's unbelievable. Incredible. I'm very proud of him. He pulled it together and has a phenomenal drive -- and a gorgeous dog team to back it up. He's on top of the world right now.''
How long can it last?
Swingley won three in a row. Butcher won three in a row. Swenson would have won three in a row but for losing a controversial photo finish with Lance's father, Dick.
On the other hand, it is not easy to dominate a race that every year attracts better dog teams and more-disciplined mushers. King and Martin Buser from Big Lake are both four-time champs, but neither has ever won two straight.
Mitch Seavey from Sterling, who won in 2004, hasn't been able to get back in the winner's circle.
"To win this race,'' Seavey observed this year, "you have to do all sorts of things wrong. If you do everything right, (you're going to) run and rest approximately equally. You're not going to run over so long a distance, not going to run in the heat of the day. You do all these things right, and you'll never win the race.''
Lance Mackey agrees.
"In this race, it's all or nothing. You gamble, and sometimes you lose,'' he said. "What I do on the trail, most people just shake their head and say, 'That's not going to work.'
"To the normal train of thought, that's not possible.
"But we really don't know the full potential of these dogs still. I'm trying to red line them. I want to find out what they are capable of doing.
"Jeff King was one of the biggest skeptics of what I do. At the end of this race, he's probably the one person that has a new train of thought. He saw what I was doing out there first hand.''
It's hard to argue with success.
Lance Mackey's four-pack
Lance Mackey now has four consecutive victories in the biggest 1,000-mile sled-dog marathons in the world. They are:
2007 Yukon Quest: Mackey captures his third-straight Quest in a race record 10 days, 2 hours, 37 minutes. His margin of victory over runner-up Hans Gatt of Whitehorse is a whopping 6 hours, 42 minutes, earning Mackey $40,000. Gatt would go on to finish 15th in the Iditarod that year and move up to sixth this year.
2007 Iditarod: Mackey makes history as the first musher to win a back-to-back Quest-Iditarod double. His time of 9 days, 5 hours, 9 minutes earned him $69,000 and a new Dodge truck. Former Kenai Peninsula neighbor Paul Gebhardt was second -- 2 hours, 19 minutes back.
2008 Yukon Quest: Mackey earns his fourth-straight Quest title in 10 days, 12 hours, 14 minutes -- a narrow 15-minute victory over Fairbanks neighbor Ken Anderson. Mackey earns $35,000. Anderson goes on to finish fourth in the Iditarod less than a month later. Only Mackey has a better Yukon Quest-Iditarod double.
2008 Iditarod: Mackey completes the second consecutive Quest-Iditarod double in 9 days, 11 hours, 47 minutes -- holding off four-time champion Jeff King in the second half of the race to win by 1 hour, 19 minutes. Once again, Mackey wins $69,000 and a new truck.