Iditarod history repeats itself: Mackey wins 4th straight

Long-run strategy pays off again for Mackey and his dogs

March 16, 2010 

NOME -- Lance Mackey, stripped to long underwear and a knee brace, scanned the innards of the White Mountain city hall refrigerator, looking for grub.

"What else you got?" asked the Fairbanks musher, who had just widened his lead in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and was hours from his fourth straight victory Tuesday in Nome.

"Hot dogs," said a race volunteer. Mackey approved. He'd have two, slathered in mayonnaise, along with a paper plate stacked with fried chicken, mashed potatoes and corn.

Mackey always had drive. Now, resting at a mandatory village pit stop 77 miles from the Nome finish line, he just needed fuel. Under the parka and the snowsuit and the blue jacket with the ripped left sleeve, the most dominant musher of his time is a thin rope of muscle, scar tissue and sinew who looks more like a trucker or heavy metal roadie than a world-class athlete.

But that's just what he is -- declaring his dominance once again with a 65-minute win over his closest competitor Tuesday afternoon in Nome to earn a $50,400 paycheck, a Dodge truck and another chapter in the mushing mythology.

"I had seven dogs who would go to the end of the earth for me, and nine more who would try," Mackey said at the finish line. "I've got a lot of young superstars and a bright future with them."

No other musher has won four Iditarods in a row. Mackey's time into Nome -- 51 seconds under nine days -- was the second-fastest in the 38-year history of the race. He arrived with 11 of the 16 dogs he started the race with.

"He could take your dogs and beat his team with your dogs. That's how good of a musher he is," said Hugh Neff, a Mackey friend who sometimes raced alongside the Fairbanks musher in the Iditarod and Yukon Quest. "It ain't just about the dogs -- it's about him. And the magic he has that nobody else seems to have."

Mackey's win relied on what's become his trademark of surprisingly long runs with little or no rest in order to outpace faster dog teams. With his famed lead dog Larry now running with Jamaican musher -- and Mackey apprentice -- Newton Marshall, the 39-year-old relied on leaders Maple and Rev.

"I will have to say, and I'm a little embarrassed, this is the tiredest team I've ever driven to a victory," Mackey said, rubbing his leaders' ears. "But I've also had the stiffest competitors behind me this year."

The race was typically bruising for mushers, many of whom will continue to arrive in Nome this week. Neff wore a dark burn from the cold high on his cheek, like a black eye. Chicago rookie Pat Moon crashed out after apparently hitting a tree and falling unconscious while Kasilof musher Bruce Linton, who is diabetic, said his insulin froze along the Yukon River.

"I've been freezing every night for it seems like a long time. There was quite a bit of cold weather, 30 below," 2004 Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey said in White Mountain. As he talked, a veterinarian wrapped his split, swollen fingers in white medical tape.

As of Tuesday night, 15 of the original 71 mushers had dropped from the race. Yukon Quest winner Hans Gatt, of Whitehorse, arrived in Nome about an hour after Mackey, followed by four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King in third.

Fairbanks musher Ken Anderson was poised to finish fourth. John Baker of Kotzebue, an early leader and considered a threat to win, was in fifth place after spending a frustrating five hours waiting just outside of Cripple checkpoint when he wasn't sure he was on the right trail.

By the time Mackey arrived Monday night in White Mountain, Gatt and King knew only a major disaster could stop the defending champ.

Mackey, meantime, was eating his chicken and hot dogs in village's makeshift Iditarod headquarters, fretting over wasting much of the untouched food on his plate.

His father, 1978 Iditarod champion Dick sat down beside him. The Mackey men talked strategy. Dick had been studying race statistics and couldn't see how Gatt could catch his son.

Mackey listened and nodded, his feet raw and fingers stained from a week on the trail. A rubber band held his hair in a tight braid.

"When (Gatt) is faster than you, he's about 0.8 miles an hour faster. And if that's the case, all you've got (to do) is to do your thing," Dick said. "At this point, it's your race to lose."

And lately, when the stakes are highest, Mackey wins.

"He'll probably be the first to tell you, his dogs -- he doesn't have the best dog team," said musher Zack Steer, of Sheep Mountain. "I ran with him in the middle of the race. My team was as fast or faster than him. He wins because of him and because of his passion."

Mackey says that what he does well is understand his team, allowing for calculated risks that can change a race in an instant.

A flash decision to push from Nulato through Kaltag and on to Unalakleet -- a roughly 140-mile marathon -- while King rested gave Mackey the lead for good on Saturday.

"I don't think that I do anything with my running to jeopardize the dogs, or the future of the dogs," Mackey said. "I gamble ... (but) I'm not going to win the Iditarod at the expense of my team."

Across the hall from the White Mountain chow room was the race's new drug-testing headquarters -- a city supply room filled with file containers and cable TV boxes.

Anchorage-based Work Safe, a company known for testing potential workers for employers, is donating the drug-testing services as the Iditarod began checking mushers for illegal substances for the first time this year.

As mushers arrived in White Mountain, they were pulled aside for testing. Mackey was the first.

A throat cancer survivor who once had a finger removed after it was rendered useless by nerve damage, Mackey holds a medical marijuana card. He has admitted to using pot on the trail in the past, and felt singled out by the race's new drug-testing policy, saying it was spurred by jealous competitors. Race officials said the effort was prompted by other Iditarod finishers and conceded he wasn't off point.

Mackey said before the race he wouldn't use pot or the marijuana pills prescribed to him.

"I don't think it's going to show a damn thing," he said moments after taking the drug test.

The samples will be flown to Spokane, Wash., for analysis with results known by the mushers banquet later this month, said Work Safe general manager Don Bisby.

Some mushers approve of the change, saying that if drug-testing is good enough for Iditarod dogs, who have been tested for years, it's good enough for Iditarod mushers. King called the testing a waste of money Monday night. "If it's originated because of somebody smoking pot, I really think it's stupid," he said.

Asked how he felt about the drug-testing policy shortly after winning the Iditarod on Tuesday, Mackey's reply drew cheers from the crowd of fans lining the curb of Front Street: "It apparently didn't change the outcome of the race," he said.

Mike Williams, a 14-time Iditarod veteran from Akiak who raced to promote sobriety in Alaska, watched for Mackey's arrival in Nome. Williams said he traveled with Mackey during Mackey's first Iditarod. Today, Williams will be looking for his son, 25-year-old Mike Jr.

Williams would like to see more village Iditarod teams in the near future, he said -- perhaps sponsored by Alaska Native corporations, nonprofits, or the companies that do business with them.

Elsewhere in the crowd, fans wore "Rootin' for Newton" buttons -- cheering the Jamaican dog-sledder and held signs that read "Wag more, bark less" and, for Mackey, "4-gone conclusion." The winning purse for this year's race shrank by $19,000 as the cash-strapped Iditarod lost sponsors in the ailing economy, but the competition remains Alaska's premier sporting event and champions transform from celebrities to folk heroes as years pass.

Mackey arrived just before 3 p.m., stopping ahead of the burled arch finish line to talk to his team. "I just told them how proud I was of them and what they had accomplished, and I love them dearly," he told reporters, flanked by the lead dogs in flower collars. Rev, who is missing his left ear tip, closed his eyes. Maple leaned into a rub.

Dick Mackey threw the winning dogs' booties -- teams tear through hundreds of the fabric dog shoes over the course of the race -- to fans in the crowd.

In Mackey's sled sat caribou antlers that the musher found about 10 miles outside of Nome.

"I'm always looking around (while mushing)," Mackey explained. "I know what the trail looks like and I know what the butt of a dog looks like, so I'm always looking at the scenery."

When something snagged his sled, pulling it to a complete stop, he got out and saw the antlers sticking out of the snow, Mackey said.

He spent five minutes digging it out with a trail marker and mushed to the finish line with bone as an oversized hood ornament.

MULTIPLE VICTORIES

FIVE -- RICK SWENSON OF TWO RIVERS, 1977, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1991

FOUR -- SUSAN BUTCHER, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1990

• MARTIN BUSER OF BIG LAKE, 1992, 1994, 1997, 2002

• JEFF KING OF DENALI PARK, 1993, 1996, 1998, 2006

• DOUG SWINGLEY OF LINCOLN, MONT., 1995, 1999, 2000, 2001

• LANCE MACKEY OF FAIRBANKS, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010

TWO -- ROBERT SORLIE OF NORWAY, 2003, 2005

CONSECUTIVE VICTORIES

FOUR -- LANCE MACKEY OF FAIRBANKS, 2007-10

THREE -- SUSAN BUTCHER, 1986-88 DOUG SWINGLEY OF LINCOLN, MONT., 1999-2001

TWO -- RICK SWENSON OF TWO RIVERS, 1981-82

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