HUSLIA — Iditarod musher Jason Mackey said that as he races through Alaska with his sled dog team, he imagines his family glued to the online tracker, watching him run toward the front of the pack, watching him finally excel after sacrificing so much.
"I know my boys are just going absolutely nuts," Mackey said Friday night, standing in the quiet, snowy field here lined with sled dogs curled atop straw. "I told my wife when I left the starting line, 'This is going to be a good one.' And, you know, I say that every year and she believes in me 100 percent, but you can only listen to that for so long, and it comes up short every year.
"So that has been on my mind a lot."
This year, Mackey said he feels like he is running "as perfect a race as I know how" — at least by the halfway point in Huslia.
"This whole time, I've been at the top of the board and that's a pretty cool feeling. That's a really cool feeling, actually," he said. "Everything is just going right."
A few things have changed for Mackey since last year, when he placed 34th. He found a corporate sponsor in his wife's employer, Arctic Catering and Support Services, he said, helping him pad last year's shoestring budget. He also has some new dogs — six of the 15 on his team are from his older brother, four-time champion Lance, who isn't running this year. All 15 have run the Iditarod before.
"I was just in awe of them last night. The trail got soft and punchy and wallowing, and they just grab a different gear and go stronger," Mackey said. "It's really been a pleasure to drive them."
Mackey, 45, of Salcha, has strong roots in the Iditarod and long-distance mushing. Lance Mackey won the Iditarod and the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest four times in a row, twice winning both races back-to-back, a feat many people thought impossible. His father, Dick, won the 1978 Iditarod by defeating defending champion Rick Swenson by one second. His half-brother Rick won in 1983.
Now, Jason Mackey said, it's his turn.
"There's nobody here who wants to be in the top more than I do. And there's nobody here who's going to outwork me," Mackey said. "Guaranteed. I'm very determined."
This year marks Mackey's seventh Iditarod start. His best finish came in his rookie year but 26th only earned him a $3,300 prize. In his other five races, he never placed high enough to win more than the $1,049 each finisher earns — not nearly enough when you're already struggling to pay the bills.
"I'm not kidding when I say we sacrifice everything," Mackey said. "I've lost homes, I've lost vehicles over the Iditarod. I can't pay the bills, I've got to buy dog foods. Well, that is no way to live, you know, and that's absolutely difficult for a family."
This year, Mackey said, the strong competition will make it hard to stay in the top 20 but "it's game on." That drive to win keeps him coming back year after year. One day, he expects to become the fourth Mackey to reach Nome first.
"I know that I've got what it takes to win this thing one day," he said. "And one day, it will happen. So having a good race is what it takes to just believe — to believe in me."
By late Saturday morning, Mackey was running in 16th place, with roughly 500 miles to go to Nome.