In the minute it took Lance Mackey to walk to his dogsled just feet from the Tanana Community Hall where mushers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race stop to rest, his hands went cold despite the thick, fleece gloves protecting them.
Looking at his dog team lounging in the bright sunshine, the four-time Iditarod champ confessed his fingers were stinging and so swollen he thought his fingernails might pop off. Hand problems, his brother Jason Mackey from Wasilla said, likely mean Lance's career as a long-distance musher is about over.
Lance Mackey largely conceded the same. It's hard to function on the trail when your hands don't work in temperatures around zero, relatively warm for the Yukon River drainage.
After struggling to finish the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks last month, Mackey is struggling to finish this race. He once dominated both.
The Fairbanks musher, 44, became famous when he won the Quest and Iditarod back-to-back in 2007. Until then, everyone thought it impossible to win both races in the same year. Mackey did it and then proved the victories no fluke by successfully defending his championships in both races in 2008.
Much has changed since then.
"The reality is my body is not somewhat cooperating with me," he said Wednesday. "It's a harsh reality. I'll be fine. I'll make it to Nome, but it might take me three months to do it."
The Iditarod struggle has taken one of long-distance racing's premier competitors and most famous cancer survivors by surprise. Mackey was taking his 24-hour mandatory rest in Tanana, far sooner than the rest of the field. The race leaders aren't expected to pause for the Iditarod's lone, daylong mandatory stop until they are hundreds of miles farther along the 1,000-mile trail to Nome.
Resting only about 230 miles into the race is the equivalent of resting just outside of the Rohn checkpoint on the traditional Iditarod route. Doing the 24 hours in Rohn has become an uncommon occurrence in the modern race.
And if Mackey could have his way, he said, he'd be taking a 48-hour rest here instead of 24.
"I ain't doing anything for anybody but me and my dog team," he said. "It might be early for some people in their opinion, and that's their opinion. It's about these 16 dogs and my body."
Mackey suffers from Reynaud's syndrome, which limits blood circulation in his hands. That makes him extra-susceptible to cold, and the temperature has been dropping to 30 below zero at night.
A bad tangle in his team outside Nenana on Monday forced him to expose his hands to cold air for minutes to get the dogs sorted out. Just that short exposure was enough to leave him with lingering problems more than a day later.
Jason Mackey, also an Iditarod musher, said Lance's hands have now taken on a blackish hue like those of a mechanic working on a greasy car all day.
Jason plans to follow his brother down the trail from here on and help him care for his dogs. Race rules prohibit outside assistance, but mushers are able to help one another.
In a tearful interview with the Iditarod Insider, Lance said Jason could help him put booties on the dogs.
"It's his last Iditarod," Jason told Alaska Dispatch News in an interview Wednesday. "He won't be racing it no more. It's time to turn the page."
Jason said that because of harness rub and sore wrists in his dog team, he had been thinking about staying in Tanana for his 24-hour layover but didn't settle on it until he realized his brother was going to stay.
It was a bittersweet moment for Jason, who looks forward to traveling down the trail with Lance but finds it difficult to see him struggle.
"I just feel so damn bad for him," Jason said. "He digs really deep to find something. Nobody would be out here with hands like that.
"Nobody is as tough as him.''
Whether Lance finishes -- let alone returns to the Iditarod in the future -- is a question mark. He told Iditarod Insider this race would likely be his last dog race.
But his brother doesn't think Lance should give up on dogs totally just yet. Jason suggested his older brother could get into sprint racing. And the duo haven't given up all hope for Iditarod 2015.
Lance noted the brothers traveled together during Jason's first Iditarod in 2004 and both men finished respectably in 24th for Lance and 26th for Jason. That race followed the race's usually arduous route over the Alaska Range mountains and across a desolate stretch of Interior to the Yukon. Because of the absence of snow north of the mountains, the race moved to a somewhat tamer course along the rivers of the Interior west from Fairbanks to Nome this year.
Lance remains hopeful he can make the finish line, and said he intends to pay back his younger brother generously for his help if the brothers get there.
"If he's going to hang out with me and make sure I get to Nome, I'll pay him back to get him my 16 best dogs," Lance said. "He deserves it. Not that his dogs aren't capable, but I'm going to do what I can to help him along."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing