Despite what Lance Mackey said during a low point in last year's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, he won't give up long-distance mushing — at least not yet.
"I'm too damn young to retire from a sport I love more than life," Mackey said Wednesday during a fundraising dinner for his kennel at Club Paris in downtown Anchorage. "I've got a new girlfriend, I've got a new dog team, I've got new sponsors and I've got a new attitude."
Mackey, a 45-year-old cancer survivor who dominated the Iditarod with four consecutive victories from 2007 to 2010, walked from table to table in the dimly lit restaurant Wednesday evening to talk to the 70 or so diners. He gave a quick speech — after the song "Who Let the Dogs Out" by the Baha Men stopped playing over the speakers. He posed for photographs and signed autographs as waiters served guests steak, ribs and halibut.
"We won't just be in the event this year; that's what I was last year. I wasn't a competitor. I wasn't on anybody's mind," Mackey said. "I think I'll catch some people off-guard."
Mackey placed 43rd in last year's Iditarod, reaching Nome after a rough 12 days. He said he has more fight in him this year.
He described last year as "probably the worst year and the worst race." Mackey had serious pain in his hands — which are particularly susceptible to cold due to Raynaud's disease and radiation treatments. After exposing his hands to the air to untangle his team, problems lingered. He struggled to bootie his dogs with swollen, puffy fingers and ran the rest of the race with his younger brother, Jason, who helped with dog care.
"I feel like I'm kind of an old version of a young me," Mackey said in an interview. "I've got the attitude, the want, the desire. But I'm a little older now and a little more beat up."
On Wednesday, Mackey held out his palms, his skin blackened along the edges. He said he has a pain management doctor in Fairbanks and had parts of his index finger removed. He still had to find some sort of hard covering to put over that finger before the race. It's so sensitive, he said, he shrivels in pain if it hits a coin in his pocket.
"It just seems to get worse instead of better," he said.
His hands weren't the only challenge he faced in recent years. He had two dogs die on the Iditarod trail last year: Wyatt and Stiffy. Veterinarians never determined what exactly led to the deaths. Dr. Stu Nelson, the Iditarod's chief veterinarian, described it Thursday as "some kind of cardiac malfunction," but said further tests turned out inconclusive. Then, Mackey's famous lead dog, the retired Larry, died last spring. Mackey said he built a shrine behind his wood stove for his dogs who have died.
Mackey also went through a divorce — one that he said spanned 3½ years.
"I'm only human," he said. "I'm not as tough as people think I am, in a lot of ways. And that kicked my ass."
Many of his supporters Wednesday evening disagreed. They crowded around him with cameras and spoke of his race record and concerns for his health. Shirley Yarbrough, on a trip to Alaska from Mississippi, said she felt most inspired by Mackey's determination and persistence.
"We don't care if he's first, last or indifferent," Yarbrough said. "He's a living legend."
Mackey is the only musher to win the 1,000-mile Iditarod four consecutive times, starting in 2007. He also won the Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race four years in a row. Twice, he won the races back-to-back, a feat many people thought impossible, and one that's never been duplicated.
Mackey said he will run mostly 3-year-old sled dogs to Nome this year. He described his team as low-maintenance, opinionated and mouthy.
"They remind me of me," he said.
Mackey has loaned nine of his dogs to his younger brother, Jason, as payback for last year's race. They'll run together "if he can keep up," he said.
Each year Mackey runs the Iditarod for a different reason, and this year's he's running it for him and for his dogs. Each dog in his Fairbanks kennel could run the Iditarod, he said. In fact, he said, he personally apologized to each one he couldn't bring to this year's race.
"I talk to my dogs more than I talk to anybody," he said.
Despite the obstacles, Mackey has also seen recent success. A documentary about his comeback story, "The Great Alone," has won several film festival awards. Mackey has flown to several of the festivals — staying at fancy hotels and eating gourmet dinners.
"Frequent flier miles are racking up," he said with a laugh. "It's not all bad."
Still, Mackey said he remains the same old Mackey. Pointing to his outfit at Club Paris, he said, "I'm still going to show up in a pair of dirty, old jeans and my bunny boots. Probably smell like dog food."
Mackey still put on a clean dress shirt over his long underwear for the evening dinner. He wore his Iditarod belt buckle, awarded to him when he got to Nome at the end of his 2001 rookie race, and a black baseball cap. His ponytail fell past his thin shoulders.
As the music cut out, Mackey spoke to the crowd. It's "mind-boggling," he told them, to see so many familiar faces and so much support.
"It's not a secret that I've had a rough few years," he said. "The one thing that keeps me kind of striving is my dog team. And I'll tell you what, I have a big, badass dog team this year."