Jamaican dog musher Newton Marshall arrived in Alaska on Sunday to begin a kind of three-month Iditarod boot camp with reigning champ Lance Mackey.
Mackey, who plans to lend Marshall his lead dog from last year's winning team, is a blunt-talking cancer survivor who's won the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race three years in a row. Marshall took up the sport on a Caribbean island where it never snows. Singer Jimmy Buffett is his main sponsor.
In other words, Hollywood might as well start casting the movie now.
After training with three-time Yukon Quest champion Hans Gatt last year, Marshall placed 13th of 29 mushers in the 1,000-mile race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks. Now it's Mackey's turn as mentor, and his family spent three months building a cabin next to their Fairbanks home, where Marshall will live and train until the Iditarod in March.
"He's going to be doing everything that we do," said Mackey, who is also a four-time Yukon Quest champion.
"From cleaning dog crap to cutting meat. Prepping for the races. Obviously the training part of it. Everything that it takes to make this household run, he's going to be involved in," Mackey said.
Mackey's wife, Tonya, greeted Marshall with a hug at the Anchorage international airport Sunday afternoon as the family prepared to climb into the black Dodge pickup Lance won at the last Iditarod for the hours-long drive back to Fairbanks. Mackey waited at home where he'd been running dogs until about 2 a.m.
Marshall, 26, said he met the champion musher in Toronto earlier this month for a fundraiser for the fledgling Jamaica Dogsled Team. The visit included a Buffett concert where the "Margaritaville" singer dedicated a song to the young musher, said team founder Danny Melville.
Marshall sometimes sings reggae songs to himself on the trail to keep his spirits up, he said.
As the training begins, Mackey hopes that kind of crossover appeal brings more worldwide fans to dog mushing. He's also getting paid for his troubles, though Mackey and Melville declined to say what the Jamaican team is paying for the training.
"We're trying to get as much recognition for this sport as possible," Mackey said. "In return, it opens doors for potential sponsorships, and anything I can do to stand out a little bit, to maybe come up with some of them corporate sponsors, this is maybe one of those stunts."
That said, the musher says Marshall came to Alaska to get a job done and is already a veteran of the Quest -- a race billed as the toughest in the world.
A Quest race marshal who said he initially dismissed Marshall's entry as a publicity stunt later awarded him the race's Challenge of the North award, Melville said.
"At the end of the day, people knew he was a musher," he said.
DRY RUNS IN JAMAICA
Melville founded a Jamaican tour company roughly 25 years ago. It now offers what he calls adventure tourism -- sliding down zip lines, tubing down rivers. While traveling in Canada, he said, he noticed a dog sled on wheels and realized the contraption could be used to run dogs in Jamaica.
The company soon began offering dry-land sled dog tours and eventually competing in mushing competitions.
At the Iditarod, Marshall will use one of four teams from Mackey's Comeback Kennel, said Theresa Daily, who runs a mushing Web site in Chugiak and handles public relations for Mackey and other mushers.
The team Newton is leasing will likely include dogs that helped win the Iditarod each of the past three years, Mackey said.
"Larry, my famous leader, will probably be with Newton," Mackey said. "He's 9 years old now and nearing his retirement."
Asked if losing some of his front-end dogs will handicap his own Iditarod chances, Mackey said no.
"It's forced me to let some of the older guys go and ... put some faith in some of the young dogs," he said.
As for Hollywood -- it's no mistake that Melville named the Jamaica Dogsled Team to recall the Jamaican bobsled team, made famous in the Disney movie "Cool Runnings."
While no motion picture is in the works, "Don't think I'm not working on it," Melville said.
"Underdog," a documentary about Marshall's run in the Yukon Quest, is scheduled to air in Canada early next year, he said.
Meantime, Mackey has a book on the way and recently extended a deal for a film about his life.
"Nicolas Cage was one of the people they wanted to talk to about playing me," he said.