Mackey's Iditarod triple play

March 18, 2009 

NOME -- At the end, the storms that had raked the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race for days finally died and the sun shone brightly on Lance Mackey as 15 dogs pulled him down Front Street on Wednesday to a historic victory.

Only twice before have mushers put together three wins in a row in the 1,000-mile race from Anchorage to Nome, and those mushers -- the late Susan Butcher from Fairbanks and Doug Swingley from Lincoln, Mont. -- are now legends in the sport.

Never before has the Iditarod known a three-time winner who also has four victories in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.

And never in the pre-Mackey era was it ever thought possible to win both the Quest and the Iditarod in the space of about a month with essentially the same dog team. Mackey has done it twice.

This year the 38-year-old Fairbanks dog driver sat out the Quest to save his team's energy for the merely improbable: that three-in-a-row string of Iditarod victories.

There are mushers with more Iditarod victories than Mackey -- Rick Swenson from Two Rivers has five; Martin Buser from Big Lake, Jeff King from Denali Park, Butcher and Swingley each have four -- and every one of them would testify as to how hard it is to put together even two in a row.

Buser couldn't do it. King couldn't do it. And they're among the best to ever stand on the runners of a dog sled.

Swenson pulled it off in 1981 and 1982, but fell to fifth in 1983 -- the year Lance Mackey's half -brother, Rick, won his only Iditarod while constantly looking over his shoulder in worry that Swenson might somehow magically catch up. Swenson has a strange relationship with the Mackey family.

Some think Swenson should have won three in a row from 1977 to 1979. He was, however, beaten by Lance's dad, Dick, in 1978 in an Iditarod photo finish with a strange twist. Dick's lead dog crossed the finish line first, but his sled hit the burled arch and never made it. Swenson's sled was the first across.

Judges, however, cited an old sled-dog racing rule that said the nose of the first dog across the line decides the winner, even though all races begin with the nose of the sled on the start line. Some to this day question that ruling, though Swenson has never complained.

Lance, who was a pre-teen when Swenson was the King of the Trail, knows this history well. It gave him a special appreciation for the magnitude of his own accomplishment.

"It's done,'' he said. "It's amazing, absolutely amazing.''

And Mackey somehow made it look easy this year, though it was anything but.

In a throwback to Iditarods staged before "global warming'' became a catchphrase, the 2009 race drove north into bitter cold and wind. Two dogs apparently froze to death and a musher, his own life in danger, had to be rescued from the desolate Innoko River country.

King, at one point a contender in the race, turned his team back from the ice of Norton Bay to take shelter in the village of Shaktoolik as a Bering Coast storm raged. Other teams hunkered down for nearly 24 hours in a cabin on the edge of the ice to wait out the weather. Hugh Neff from Skagway, who'd overcome bitter Klondike cold to finish second in the Quest in February, fell victim to the cold and wind in the Iditarod; he severely frostbit his face.

Coast-hardened John Baker from Kotzebue and 2009 Quest champ Sebastian Schnuelle from Whitehorse, Yukon, braved the weather to cross the bay in pursuit of Mackey's team, and called the conditions simply brutal.

Baker came into the Koyuk checkpoint with the fur ruff of his parka tight around his face, but the lashes of his left eye still just about frozen together from driving into the wind and 20- to 30-below cold.

Mackey's team, however, seemed to shrug off even the worst Mother Nature threw at it, though the driver confessed at the finish that he'd dealt with enough.

"It was pretty demanding trail since Anvik,'' he said. "I feel like I earned it."

For the victory, he collected $69,000 and a new Dodge pickup truck. Hours behind, Schnuelle finished second, Baker third. Others weren't expected to pass under the burled arch that marks the end of the trail until today.

Behind them, the string of teams working north stretched for almost 400 miles to the middle of the trail up the Yukon River, where the weather conditions remained extreme. Blowing snow had drifted over the trail there, and mushers were going against a headwind driving the wind chill down to 40 below.

Visually impaired musher Rachel Scdoris and her guide, Tim Osmar from Kasilof, encountered conditions so bad it took them more than a day to travel 60 miles. Just ahead of them, on the trail from the village of Grayling to Eagle Island -- a wall tent on a patch of land in the middle of the frozen river -- musher Eric Rogers took almost 32 hours.

That Mackey proved so dominant in conditions under which others faltered was something the musher attributed to a powerhouse dog team.

"I'm just the passenger who knows sometimes what to do right,'' he joked.

All the passenger had to do, he said, was listen to the dogs.

If they started acting like they'd eaten enough, slept enough and wanted to head on up the trail, Mackey said, he'd just hop on the runners of the sled and tell them to go.

"This race was really smooth as far as the performance level of the dogs,'' he said. "I've never had a team work together like this before."

At the front, Mackey said, he often had a 3-year-old named Maple pacing the way, but the strength of the team remained former golden-harness winner Larry. When the team had trouble getting out of Golovin on the run to White Mountain, Mackey moved Larry to the front and off they went. When Maple got confused by the crowd on Front Street and wandered off the trail, Mackey brought Larry to the front to help guide her in.

"I love that dog,'' he said, adding that Larry is now headed for retirement.

"Even if he wants to do another, I'm not going to let him,'' Mackey said. "He's run in all eight of my Iditarods. The year I didn't run in '03, he was in (friend Paul) Gebhardt's team."

Mackey actually thought about leaving Larry home this year. He wasn't sure the 9-year-old dog was up to another 1,000-mile run, but at the end there was Larry, pulling as hard as ever coming into town and wagging his tail at the finish.

"Larry knows I need him only for certain times,'' Mackey said. "But he's pulled all sorts of boner moves (this year). It's a good indication he's had enough."

Whether the Mackey dynasty can survive Larry's departure remains to be seen. Swenson was never the same after Andy retired. Butcher was never the same after Granite retired. Alaska Sports Hall of Fame musher George Attla, one of the greatest dog drivers of all time, has long said if a musher gets one great lead dog in a lifetime, he's been blessed.

Mackey's hoping for two. He expects Maple will "be a superstar next year."

Were the prediction coming from anyone but Mackey, it might be easy to dismiss. But he's done the impossible before.

He beat cancer, took over the Quest as if he owned it, and then did what every other musher said couldn't be done -- win the Quest and the Iditarod, the two toughest (some might say grueling) dog races in the world, in the space of about a month.

Many thought it had to be a one-time thing, a fluke. And it was easy to believe Mackey might be a one-time Iditarod wonder like his father, Dick, and his half-brother, Rick, before him.

Lance's first, come-from-behind victory in 2007 bore some similarities to Rick's come-from-behind victory in '83, but Lance was never saddled by Rick's struggles with sleep. Being able to do without it is the big key to winning the Iditarod, as Lance well-illustrated in 2008 when his team dueled up the coast with King's.

The oldest musher to ever win an Iditarod at the age of 50 in 2006, King decided when he hit the Elim checkpoint that he had to nap. Lance sneaked out while King snoozed and grabbed his second Iditarod victory.

It was the second time he'd done the impossible -- win the Quest and the Iditarod in the same year.

Other mushers thought they might get lucky this year when Mackey decided not to do the Quest in order to be able to spend more time in Fairbanks helping train rookie musher Harry Alexie from Bethel. They thought Mackey might be making a mistake in breaking a pattern that had worked so well.

Little could anyone know that would only make him more dominant in the Iditarod.

He stormed into the ghost town of Iditarod to grab the $3,000 in gold nuggets for being first to halfway and never looked back. He picked up the eight-course gourmet dinner and $3,500 for the musher first to the Yukon, and another $3,000 in nuggets for the musher first to the Bering Sea coast.

By then, the other drivers agreed, he'd built such a lead nobody was going to catch him unless his team got hit by lightning. By White Mountain, where mushers take a mandatory eight-hour break before the last leg of the race, Mackey himself was conceding that even if he had to walk his dogs to the finish he would win.

Instead, though, he rode the trail behind 15 of the 16 swifts with which he'd started the race and thought about the history he was making by winning three in a row.

"You can do this 100 times and still get choked up,'' he said. "I couldn't help but think about it a little bit. Susan Butcher, she's done it first. Then Doug Swingley. It's something that can be accomplished with a little effort.''

Or maybe, more accurately, a lot of effort. That's sort of the Mackey way. No one doubts he will be out on the trails, spending days that run into weeks that run into months, getting a team ready to contend next year.

"I don't expect too much to change,'' Mackey said. "Maybe a new sponsor. As far as my way of living, or my thought process, ain't nothing's changed, nor will it ever.

"Yeah, (this) might change some people, but it damn sure hasn't really changed me at all.

"I am just a regular guy. I don't ever want to become someone else. I've seen some of my competitors change after their success. It's kind of embarrassing for them, and I ain't even part of it."

Don't expect to see Lance posing for the covers of any fashion magazines. He's got dogs to train.

"I'm pretty sure every team I bring to the Iditarod will be one people should pay attention to. Every year I come to this race they'll be capable,'' he said. "What I've noticed in the pattern of the cycles is once the team loses their superstar leader they falter. Larry has been teaching the youngsters. When Larry's gone, I'll have some to take his place."


Find Craig Medred online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.


Most wins

Rick Swenson: 5Susan Butcher: 4 Jeff King: 4 Martin Buser: 4 Doug Swingley: 4 Lance Mackey: 3 Three in a row

Lance Mackey: 2007-2009 Doug Swingley: 1999-2001 Susan Butcher: 1986-1988

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