For four-time Iditarod champ Lance Mackey, there’s only one thing harder than racing: Not racing

Mackey said finishing this year’s Iditarod, his first since disastrous races in 2015 and 2016, would give him closure: “I’m not good at accepting the fact that I can’t do this anymore.”

FOX — Lance Mackey picked at the lid of a coffee creamer at a truck stop north of Fairbanks on a recent afternoon. It took a few tries before his numb, swollen fingers could peel it back.

“My hands have never been this bad, and they’ve been bad,” Mackey said, sitting at a table with his girlfriend and their two young children. He looked his nine gnarled fingers. “I’m having a bad day.”

Mackey, 48, couldn’t button his pants that morning. He couldn’t brush his hair. He struggled to put on his son’s socks. The 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was less than three weeks away, and Mackey — a four-time race champion and cancer survivor — said he was determined to get to the starting line. It will be his first Iditarod since 2016, when he dropped out of the race about halfway through.

Mackey said finishing this year’s Iditarod would give him closure and allow him to move on. He needs that, he said. But that morning he stood crying in the shower, frustrated by his hands.

“I’ve done some great things in this sport and people ask me what the hell I’m doing, what am I thinking, why would I want to do it again?” Mackey said. “It’s because I’m not good at accepting the fact that I can’t do this anymore. I’m not good at accepting the fact that the last time I tried I couldn’t finish, and I’m not a quitter.”

‘It’s addicting’

About a decade ago, Mackey dominated long-distance sled dog racing.

He won the Yukon Quest 1,000-mile International Sled Dog Race four years in a row, starting in 2005. He’s also the only musher to win the Iditarod four straight years. The Quest and the Iditarod happen about a month apart. In 2007, Mackey won both races back-to-back, a feat many thought impossible. Then he did it again in 2008.

Mackey gained fame and fans in Alaska and Outside. The Iditarod, he said, allowed him to become a “somebody” without changing who he is: an Alaskan who loves racing dogs, drives a pickup truck and wears his “cleanest pair of dirty pants” every day.

“It gives me a sense of pride to know that I can be somebody successful and yet still be me. I don’t have to wear a uniform. I don’t have to answer to somebody. I don’t have to cut my hair. I can still be me and be somebody,” Mackey said.

“It’s powerful, man. It’s addicting.”

As Mackey tells it, he was born into sled dog racing. His father, Dick, won the 1978 Iditarod by one second. Mackey’s half-brother, Rick, won the 1983 race.

Mackey entered his first Iditarod in 2001 and finished 36th.

Soon after, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. He underwent surgery and radiation. He dropped out of the 2002 Iditarod, but not before traveling about 350 miles down the trail with a feeding tube in his stomach. Five years later, he won the race.

“There’s a lot of people who were put on Earth to be doctors and lawyers and carpenters and what have you,” Mackey said. “I was put on Earth to race, train and promote sled dogs, and at one time I was pretty good at this sh-t.”

But the cancer and its treatments left lasting impacts on Mackey’s body.

His salivary glands came out with surgery, so he has to constantly drink water to keep his throat moist. Nerve damage from surgery left him with limited mobility in his right arm. His hands are extra susceptible to cold due to radiation and Raynaud’s, which causes the blood vessels to narrow in his fingers in low temperatures. He had so much pain in his left index finger that he had it amputated. He’s also had a fingertip removed, and part of another one taken off.

“If I ever run across the guy that came up with the phrase ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’ I’m going to punch him square in the face because that’s bullsh-t,” Mackey said.

Mackey’s hands have affected his Iditarod before.

During the 2015 race, his hands got too cold. He struggled with swollen, puffy fingers to put booties on his dogs, and ran the rest of the race with his younger brother, Jason, who helped with dog care. Mackey finished 43rd. He also had two dogs die on the Iditarod Trail that year: Wyatt and Stiffy.

Mackey previously described 2015 as “probably the worst year and the worst race."

The next year, he had to turn his team around on the trail after his dogs got sick. He later dropped out of the race. He said he hasn’t been quite the same since.

‘Emotional roller-coaster ride’

At the truck stop, Mackey held his 2-year-old son, Atigun, on his lap. His girlfriend, Jenne Smith, and their 8-month-old daughter, Lozen, sat across the square table. Snow fell outside.

“Look at your hairdo,” Mackey said to a smiling Lozen. “Oh, look at this baby.”

Mackey said he’s “ecstatic to be a daddy.” It has made him think more about taking care of his body.

“I can’t be beat up trying to raise two kids,” he said.

Until recently, Mackey said, he had been feeling good about the upcoming Iditarod. He had surgery on his left middle finger in November and it helped ease the pain. Then came the Eagle River Classic sprint dog races in early February. A mishap at the starting line sent Mackey down the trail face-first. He lost his gloves in the fall.

“I tore up my hands yet again,” Mackey said. “This time pretty bad.”

Whenever things look good, he said, something seems to go wrong.

“It’s been a very hard, emotional roller-coaster ride,” he said.

By the time Mackey finished picking at his remaining toast and home fries last week, he wondered aloud if he was setting himself up for another Iditarod disappointment.

But reached at his home outside of Fairbanks a few days later, he said things were looking up once again. Smith has helped massage, wrap and soak his hands. He said he’s confident he’ll be able to take care of his dog team on the Iditarod Trail, just not as quickly as he once could.

He also made alterations to his sled for the race.

Mackey said he’s planning to deploy what he calls a “covered-wagon sled.” He has a custom canvas top that will go over the back of his sled, zippered doors on both sides and a windshield. It also has a “sunroof” so he can stand up, he said. Inside, he’ll have two small heaters and he’s carrying a solar panel. The additions weigh about 15 pounds, he said.

“It’s bulky, but it’s necessary,” Mackey said. “With both heaters going you could probably break a sweat.”

It’s not the most aerodynamic sled, Mackey said. But he’s not in this year’s Iditarod to win.

Mark Nordman, the Iditarod’s race director, said he welcomed Mackey back to the race. Mackey’s entry was looked at by a review board, he said, just like the rest of the mushers.

“I think Lance is well-aware of his potential limitations,” Nordman said.

For now, Mackey said, he doesn’t know what’s next after the 2019 race, his 15th Iditarod start.

He said he knows he needs to finish the Iditarod — at least one more time. He needs that closure if he wants to move on. And on bad days, when his hands don’t work, that’s what he’s ready to do. On good days, it’s tough to imagine life without the sport and dogs he loves.

“I’m not old enough, I feel, to give up on something that I’m so passionate about. I’m fairly good at (it) at times, and I don’t know how to replace that with anything else,” he said. “There ain’t a damn thing on this planet that I’m as into as I am this.”

Mackey is one of 52 mushers signed up for the 2019 Iditarod. The ceremonial start is March 2 in Anchorage, with an official race start the next day in Willow.

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.