Before Thursday, as mushers in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race took their big 40-hour break in Dawson City, there was one big question on everyone's mind -- Where's Lance?
That's Lance Mackey -- a four-time Yukon Quest and Iditarod champion -- who was struggling near the back of the pack. The veteran musher -- who dominated long distance mushing in Alaska from 2005 to 2010 -- was moving slowly toward Dawson, the halfway point of the race.
Mackey made it, but that's where his 2013 Quest would end. Just before 9 a.m., officials announced Mackey's scratch, saying the veteran dog driver did so because of his small team and for the well-being of the dogs. It was the first time he's ever dropped out of the Quest. By the time he arrived in Dawson, Mackey was nearly two days behind race leader Hugh Neff of Tok.
Mackey had dropped 7 dogs -- half his team -- since leaving Whitehorse Saturday morning. Back then, Mackey was confident in his team then, telling reporters that after years of struggling -- both as a racer and in his personal life -- things were finally looking up. He expected his team to be a top contender.
But things went sour fast. Mackey dropped four dogs at Carmacks, the second checkpoint of the race only 200 miles in. Since then he's lost three more -- one in Pelly Crossing and another two at the remote Scroggie Creek dog drop, some 100 miles from Dawson.
'Getting small fast'
Mackey told reporters covering the race that warm weather had hindered his team, causing dehydration, bad appetites and low body fat.
"They’re getting small fast," Mackey told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. "They started off not eating, and it’s pretty hard to go fast with no fuel."
Sebastian Schnuelle, 2009 Yukon Quest champion and a current race judge, last saw Mackey in Pelly Crossing. He said Mackey knew he was out of contention, but he told Schnuelle he "wasn't going down without a fight."
But after seeing the standings coming out of Scroggie, Schnuelle said Mackey is clearly in "maintenance mode" -- keeping things together as best he can while slowly making his way to Dawson.
Schnuelle wouldn't speculate on whether Mackey would continue past Dawson, but he noted that having just seven dogs in-team coming into Dawson is not ideal.
Mackey's unprecedented dominance changed the face of long-distance dog sled racing forever. Before Mackey, it was considered impossible to finish both the 1,000-mile Iditarod and Yukon Quest in the same year. Mackey not only finished them -- he dominated, winning both races in 2007 and 2008. Other mushers followed suit, trying to capitalize on Mackey's success by entering both races in the same year, though none have reached the same level of success.
Mackey has repeatedly said that the core group of dogs that led him to four consecutive Quest and Iditarod championships burned out after dozens of 1,000-mile races. Since sending those dogs into retirement, Mackey has admitted to struggling while trying to rebuild his team.
After winning his fourth Iditarod in 2010, Mackey hasn't finished higher than 16th in the world’s premier sled-dog race. His Quest finishes have been brighter -- second in 2011 and third in 2012 -- against a smaller and less-talented field. He was notably upbeat during the 2012 Quest, while noting that the respectable third-place finish was his lowest ever in that race.
Why the struggles?
Things looked bright coming into this year’s Quest. Mackey handily won the inaugural Top of the World 350 race in December.
It's hard to pin down why things appear to have fallen apart.
Past Iditarod champion Joe May said the way Mackey put his champion team of dogs together was like magic.
"What he did was something that might not happen ever again," May said from his home in Trapper Creek on Wednesday. "(Mackey) probably doesn't know what happened."
Years of dominance followed by years of struggle is not uncommon in the world of long-distance mushing. Susan Butcher (four wins in five years) and Doug Swingley (four wins in seven years) each had a run of phenomenal success, followed by a few short years of disappointment before bowing out. Other mushing legends like Martin Buser (three of his four wins in six years), Jeff King (three of his four wins in six years) and Rick Swenson (four of his five wins in six years) also won their races in relatively quick succession, with an outlier win here and there.
So why the struggle? The reasons are complicated. May, who won the 1980 Iditarod, said there's something to be said about getting lucky. He suspects Butcher and Swenson both had two “super litters” of puppies during their dominant years and were never able to replicate them.
Another reason? Dedication.
"You have to win by pure obsession," May said. "You have to put 110 percent in because the people you're competing against are putting in 105."
It's a sentiment Schnuelle echoed. The veteran dog driver retired from dog racing in 2011, despite a phenomenal swan song -- finishing second in the Quest and sixth in the Iditarod.
He said that his core team of dogs were simply too old continue racing at that level. Speaking from Dawson, Schnuelle said during his top days he was “living and breathing” mushing. He recognized that in order to start over, he would have to continue to dedicate his life to the sport, starting small and slow. After well over a decade in the sport, it's not something he was interested in devoting himself to again.
"I would have had to have the goal of finishing with as many dogs as possible, knowing I was out of the top 10," he said. "Neither financially nor mentally was I willing to do that."
Schnuelle said it's important to remember that dog racing is equal parts musher and dogs. One can be ready for a win, but that doesn't mean they both are. One can't race at a high level if the other isn't ready.
"There's no doubt in my mind that Lance has it, but do his dogs have it?"
Ultimately, that remains to be seen. But it's not impossible for a musher to have a bad Quest, only to return strong for the Iditarod. In 2011, Hans Gatt, a fellow four-time Quest champion, scratched after suffering frostbite on both hands near the checkpoint of Central. Weeks later, he placed third in the Iditarod.
May pointed out that Mackey is one of the toughest mushers the sport has ever seen -- surviving cancer and hardscrabble early years to become one of the sport's most dominant forces. He may be down, but don't expect him to be out, May said.
“It would foolhardy to speculate that the kid can't come back.”
Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com