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Sled-dog dynasties, like all dynasties, are doomed to decline

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published March 4, 2013

Dynasties never last. Never.

No matter whether you are talking history or sports, the story is the same. The Roman Empire fell. The Pittsburgh Stealers of Terry Bradshaw and Lynn Swann succumbed. The Chicago Bulls of Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan could not survive. Even the legendary New York Yankees have ridden a roller-coaster of ups and downs through time.

All of which brings us to Lance Mackey, the first Alaska dog musher to do the seemingly impossible and then repeat the feat. In case anyone has forgotten, Mackey won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory to Fairbanks and the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from Willow to Nome back to back in 2007 and 2008.

The down-to-earth cancer survivor and all-around-fun-loving guy went on to rack up Iditarod victories in 2009 and 2010 to add to the Quest championships he'd claimed in 2005 and 2006. That brought his total for the two longest, toughest dog races in the world to four each.

When the string ended, he was but 39 -- still young by the standards of long-distance sled dog racing -- and possibly the most dominant sled-dog driver in Alaska history.

Legendary George Attla, the Huslia Hustler, is the only real challenger to that claim. Attla dominated sprint-dog racing through the 1960s and into the 1970s before the Iditarod was even begun. Sprint racing then was far bigger than Iditarod, the competition more heated. Despite that, Attla won the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous World Championships 10 times, and then time caught up with him, too.

Or circumstances did.

It was Attla who once observed that a dog driver is lucky to have one great lead dog in a lifetime. Attla had Blue. She was at the front for many of his victories. It is an old story.

Five-time Iditarod champ Rick Swenson had Andy at the front for four of his five wins. The woman with whom he battled through so many Iditarods -- the late Susan Butcher -- had Granite in lead for three of her four victories. Montanan Doug Swingley, the first Outsider to win the race, and the dominate Iditarod player as the 1990s ended and the 2000s began, relied on Stormy.

Once Stormy was gone, so was Swingley. Shortly after Granite retired from the scene, so did Butcher, saying she wanted to start a family. Swenson won only one-race without Andy, and that was a fluke in 1991 when a big storm hit the Bering Sea coast. Butcher was in position to win the race that year with 1989 champ Joe Runyan and regular challenge Tim Osmar in position to challenge if she faltered.

Only the weather played havoc with everything. Butcher, Runyan and Osmar turned back in a life-threatening storm. Swenson, who was going through a divorce and had just lost his father, decided he would push on with the idea he'd either win or die. He that year went to the front of the team in the storm and became the lead dog. And he won. It was to be his last victory.

Swenson has put together a lot of good dog teams since 1991, but he's never found another Andy. And he's never put together another dominant group. Rebuilding that is the hardest trick in the game, said now-retired Iditarod musher Sebastian Schnuelle of Canada. And Mackey is in the rebuilding process.

Beware Iditarod 'rabbits'

Larry retired from Mackey's team in 2009 at age 9. By then, he'd raced 12,000 miles, finished eight Iditarods, claimed three Iditarod crowns and led Mackey to all four of his Quest victories. Minus Larry, Mackey managed to pull off an Iditarod victory with the core of his old team, but it has been nothing but downhill ever since.

He was 16th in the 2011 Iditarod. He dropped to 22nd last year. This year's Quest proved even more difficult. Down to seven dogs near the halfway point of Dawson City, Yukon, and near the back of the field, Mackey scratched.

What kind of dog team he had to start the race is hard to say. He was among the early leaders, but that is not always a good thing. The worst mistake to make in any sort of endurance racing – by dogs, horses, or humans -- is to go out too fast. Swenson used to laugh at the Iditarod "rabbits," as they were called back in the day, who rocketed away from the starting line only to fold later on and watch team after team go past.

That happened for so many years that for a time it was thought that there was a curse on the first musher to reach halfway. There was no curse. Swingley and others proved that later. But there was a problem of dog mushers running a 500-mile race when they were participating in a 1,000-mile race.

They arrived at halfway having already asked everything the team had to give. Beyond that point, all the dogs could do was plod to the end.

It was a mistake made by both inexperienced dog drivers and those who wanted to win the Iditarod so bad they just couldn't control themselves. Early Iditarod racers often faced poor trail, and the dogs in teams filled with rabbits did a lot of trail breaking, which taxed them more than running on a trail that had been broken in.

Today, with the Iditarod grooming the trail in front of the leaders, the situation is different, but not wholly different. A dog team can still only do what is aerobically capable of doing. Part of that is developed in training. Part of that comes from racing. Dogs, in some respects, aren't all that different from people. They don't really understand how fast they can go until they start to go fast, and then they get incrementally faster, feasting on the belief that they can do a little more.

Winner's magic: Energy, endurance, confidence and able dogs

Mackey once had a team that believed. It was literally unstoppable. Every time he had to ask the dogs for that little bit extra that separates champions from the also-rans, they gave it. But that cannot go on forever.

Dogs age. They lose a step. A musher is forced to retire them. A new team is assembled.

And then the problem becomes not that of the dogs, but of the driver.

Once someone has been on top, it is hard to play the part of also-ran through the process of building a new team that truly can compete for a win. Butcher, one of the greatest mushers of all time, couldn't do it. Swingley couldn't do it. Four-time champ Martin Buser from Big Lake has done it, but he's never had a real dynasty.

Buser's four wins were spread across 11 years when he was in his prime, when he had the energy and drive to work a whole lot of dogs and pick from them a team that could compete. Buser will not admit to age playing a role in what has happened with his career, but since turning 50 in 2008, he has been 18th, 14th, 18th and 19th last year. Buser is still a great dog trainer, but one has to wonder about whether he hasn't lost some of the intensity that is required to put together a championship dog team.

Say the same of four-time champ Jeff King from Denali Park, the oldest musher ever to win an Iditarod at age 50. That victory came in 2006.

He stayed competitive thereafter before deciding on a short-lived retirement in 2011. He was back last year. He had a young team in contention. And then, just short of Unalakleet on the Bering Sea coast, the dogs decided they'd had enough and decided to quit. King was forced to scratch for the first time in an Iditarod career dating back to 1981. It had all the looks of a driver asking a team for just a little too much.

And there's the problem for Mackey.

When you're used to holding the power of a dynasty, it's hard to go back and start over. Turn to the National Football League, and you can ask former Steelers' Coach Chuck Noll about that or better yet Don Shula. His Miami Dolphins dominated the league in the early 1970s, but that was the end of Shula's runs. Though the Dolphins drafted one of the greatest NFL quarterbacks in history in Dan Marino in 1983, Shula -- one of the great coaches of all time -- never got back to the Super Bowl.

Fate can be a bitch.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

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