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Lance Mackey: Like father, like son

MARC LESTER / Daily News archive 2009

To say Lance Mackey rose from humble beginnings to become a dominant force in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race would be to understate the roots from which his legend grew.

Mackey's story borders on a Lincolnesque tale of one man's rise from a log cabin to the fulfillment of a childhood dream, except Mackey lacked anything so romantic as a log cabin. In the early years on the Kenai Peninsula, home for the Mackeys -- Lance and wife Tonya -- was a tarp tent, then a plywood shanty.

In this he was like a couple of other Iditarod stars whom Mackey joins this year in the Iditarod Hall of Fame: five-time champ Rick Swenson from Two Rivers and the late Susan Butcher, a four-time champ.

For many mushers associated with The Last Great Race, the hardscrabble life has been an almost ritualistic part of giving themselves over to the dogs, of becoming part of the team, of building a competitive unit out of different individuals.

People talk about the tens of thousands of dollars necessary to put an Iditarod team on the trail, but Lance Mackey started the process from nothing.

Granted, he'd been around sled dogs his whole life. His dad, Dick, won the 1978 Iditarod; his half-brother, Rick, won in 1983. But the only family resource passed Lance's way was knowledge. The Mackeys never had a lot of money.

The team that won the 2007 and 2008 Iditarods and the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest for four straight years from 2005 through 2008 was built from castoffs and rejects. Lance took those dogs and shaped them into the unit that started beating the same well-respected mushers who had given him their unwanted pups. He found himself suddenly competitive with the likes of Dean Osmar, the 1984 Iditarod champ; Osmar's son Tim, a 10-time Iditarod top-10 finisher; and Paul Gebhardt, an Iditarod runner-up.

"I told my wife that I thought we had a pretty good team," Lance said.

How good was not immediately obvious to anyone outside the Mackey household. In his first Iditarod in 2001, Lance finished an unnoticed 36th.

BATTLE WITH CANCER

Cancer turned his life upside down three days after the end of that rookie Iditarod.

Doctors determined that the piercing headaches he had been experiencing for weeks were due to a squamous cell carcinoma growing rapidly in his neck. To save Lance's life, Dr. William Fell had to cut out neck muscle, lymph nodes, the internal jugular vein and several nerves.

Lance had to undergo 12 weeks of post-surgery radiation to try to zap whatever cancer cells might have been left. The radiation ate away at his jawbone; he had to have 10 teeth pulled. When the skin over the jawbone refused to heal, Lance had to sit through 16 weeks of hyperbaric oxygen treatment to help build red blood cells and regrow tissue.

He healed eventually but was left with permanent handicaps. Because most of his saliva glands came out with the cancer surgery, he has to constantly drink water to keep his throat moist. Because of nerve damage from surgery, he has limited mobility in his right arm.

Possibly worst of all for a long-distance sled dog racer, the radiation treatments left his body weakened against the cold. He has to take extra precautions to keep his hands and feet warm. He admits it is frustrating to see other mushers quickly and efficiently changing dog booties barehanded in zero-degree temperatures while his work is slowed by the need to stuff his freezing fingers back into his beaver mitts to grab finger-warming chemical heat packs.

Not normally one to complain about the cards life has dealt him, Lance, 38, does at such times make reference to "this cancer crap," then quickly adds that, of course, "the alternative was even sadder."

AN 'IMPOSSIBLE' FEAT

Having battled every inch of the way on the climb to the top of his profession, he doesn't plan to yield his position easily. And he believes that knowing what he knows now -- how to win -- makes winning easier than it was that very first time.

"I think my chances now are as good as they've ever been," he said. "I plan to stick with this as long as my body will allow. If I get five more years, I think I'd be satisfied, but I'll take 20 if I can get it."

Lance was in such rough shape in 2002 that though he entered the Iditarod and tried to gut his way to Nome, he had to drop out about halfway. He announced he was going to take 2003 off to give himself time to heal.

He was back in 2004, but his 24th-place finish didn't exactly set the world of mushing on fire.

Then came 2005, when he decided to give the Quest a shot, and everything changed. He won that grueling race as a rookie, and just days later jumped on the back of his sled to do the Iditarod. No one had ever done the races back-to-back with any success.

Lance's seventh-place finish shocked many but was also considered something of a fluke. Every knowledgeable dog driver agreed it would be impossible to win the Quest and Iditarod in the same year.

Some thought Lance a little delusional to even think about trying. More suggested he might be better advised to take his promising young dog team and focus on the Iditarod, given that a top-five finish carried a bigger prize than victory in the Quest.

Lance felt obligated to go back and defend the Quest victory in 2006. He won, but his Iditarod performance appeared to suffer. He finished 10th.

"We told you so," people said. Winning Quest and Iditarod back-to-back, they repeated, is impossible.

And yet, somehow, Lance did just that in 2007.

Then he did the impossible again -- winning both the Quest and the Iditarod in 2008.

Frank Gerjevic, a member of the 2009 Iditarod Hall of Ffame selection committee, put it best:

"He could start breeding cats tomorrow and still belong in the hall of fame. Iditarod and Quest in one year? Twice? Mold broken. Bar raised."

Inducted 2009 Greatest accomplishment Winning the Yukon Quest and Iditarod two times in a row

Vital stats Born: June 2, 1970, in Anchorage Best finish Victories in 2007, '08, '09 Fastest time 2007 -- 9 days, 5 hours and 8 minutes Race record 2009 1st 2008 1st 2007 1st 2006 10th 2005 7th 2004 24th 2002 Scratched 2001 36th Awards Most Inspirational Musher -- 2002