Lance Mackey, an Alaska mushing champion who won legions of fans with his scrappy spirit and innate toughness even in the face of serious health problems, died Wednesday night at age 52.
Mackey’s parents, as well as his Comeback Kennel, announced his death on Thursday.
His history of hard luck and redemption, as well as his easygoing personality and down-to-earth style, led to his informal designation as the people’s champion.
An old photo making the rounds again on social media Thursday shows a truck rolling down an Alaska highway with the words “Superman wears Lance Mackey pajamas!” written in the dirt coating the back.
As news of his death spread, tributes from fans and fellow mushers across the country remembered Mackey as a legend and a friend, but also an inspiration for his way with sled dogs.
Nic Petit, the Big Lake-based musher with an impressive Iditarod record but no win yet, shared another hobby with Mackey, who started racing Legends cars in 2016.
Petit said Thursday he’s been driving Mackey’s car for a few weeks.
“The man has inspired and will inspire me and countless others,” he said, adding it was an honor to mush and drive with Mackey. “We can’t replace him. So we’ll race in his name.”
Jessie Holmes, a top-10 Iditarod finisher with a kennel out the Denali Highway, met Mackey about 15 years ago. Holmes, known for his role in the “Life Below Zero” reality TV show, said his kennel includes lots of Mackey dog genetics.
But it was the musher’s way with the dogs he remembered most.
“Definitely one of the most inspiring things is the way he connected with his dogs and what they would do for him,” Holmes said Thursday. “The crazy things he was able to do, where you knew he has a deep connection and understanding of his dogs.”
‘Resiliency and toughness’
Mackey began his career in Kasilof on the Kenai Peninsula and later moved north of Fairbanks.
Diagnosed with life-threatening throat cancer in 2001, Mackey experienced an extraordinary run of mushing achievements, winning four back-to-back Iditarod and Yukon Quest races by 2010, and winning both races in 2007 and 2008, becoming the first musher to do so. He was a race rookie when he won his first Quest in 2005.
Jeff King, himself a four-time Iditarod champion, still has vivid memories of racing against Mackey.
In 2007, King passed Mackey early in the race heading into Rainy Pass and noticed an entire runner from one side of Mackey’s sled had broken off.
“This ain’t going to be your year if you’re starting off like that,” King remembered saying.
In Rainy Pass, another racer offered to sell a replacement sled for $3,000, a proposal Mackey found insulting. He continued on to Rohn racing virtually on one foot, through the treacherous Dalzell Gorge.
“I get to Rohn River and sure (enough), he’s there and there’s no extra sled for him there either,” King said. “He takes that sled to Nikolai, the worst 100 miles of any race. He went on to win that race. That was his first Iditarod win. If that doesn’t show a level of determination that goes above and beyond supernatural ...”
In 2008, King finished runner-up behind Mackey after a late-race deception that became Iditarod legend.
They were the first two racers to arrive in Elim, less than 125 miles from the finish line in Nome. Mackey started preparing his dog team to take a rest. King, seeing that, also decided to stop for rest.
But once King fell asleep, Mackey snuck out, building the lead he needed to secure his second straight title.
“He got me hook, line and sinker,” King said. “He took (the dogs’) booties off and put out straw, all the signs of somebody who is going to park the dogs for a while. He gambled that I’d doze off feeling safe.”
When Mackey wrote a book a couple years later, King’s signed copy included a personalized inscription from his friend: “If you snooze, you lose.”
Mackey’s life was the subject of the independent 2015 documentary “The Great Alone.”
He came from a prominent Alaska mushing family. His father, Dick Mackey, ran in the first Iditarod and won the 1978 race in what remains the closest finish ever. Lance’s half-brother, Rick, won the event in 1983. His younger brother, Jason, has run the race numerous times and helped Lance during a particularly grueling 2015 run as he grappled with health problems.
His first bout with cancer began when, during the 2001 Iditarod, Mackey discovered a lump in his neck that was later diagnosed as squamous cell carcinoma, according to an Alaska Sports Hall of Fame biography. “He was still undergoing treatment when he ran the 2002 race with a tube in his stomach and a team sponsored by doctors who were amazed by his resiliency and toughness.”
Beating the odds
Most of Mackey’s saliva glands came out during his 2001 cancer surgery, forcing him to constantly drink water to keep his throat moist. Nerve damage from surgery led to limited mobility in his right arm.
Mackey in 2010 was inducted into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame, an “iron-man musher with a kennel of wonderdogs,” as Bob Eley and Beth Bragg wrote for the Hall of Fame website. “Lance Mackey beat all kinds of odds to become the greatest long distance sled-dog driver the sport has ever seen.”
By 2014, radiation from cancer treatments had decimated his jaw, costing Mackey most of his teeth. In an interview, he described waking up with blood all over his pillow.
“But hell, I’ve been through this more than once. It is what it is,” Mackey said at the time. “How do I feel? It depends on the day, but at the moment I’m all right.”
[For four-time Iditarod champ Lance Mackey, there’s only one thing harder than racing: Not racing]
Mackey also dealt with Raynaud’s disease, which causes intense pain and inoperability when fingers are exposed to cold. The condition contributed to his 2016 scratch midway through Iditarod, and a withdrawal from the field ahead of the 2017 race.
The disease caused him to take sometimes extraordinary measures to stay reasonably limber during days of handling booties, hooking dogs into lines and grinding out myriad kennel chores in the cold, including super-heavy beaver mitts, hand warmers — even amputation. Nerve damage from cancer made his left index finger useless and painful, so he persuaded doctors to remove it, according to Eley and Bragg.
Still, he kept going.
[VIDEO ABOVE: Lance Mackey talks about his future in an interview with the ADN from his home outside Fairbanks in 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN) ]
‘Ready to confront this’
Mackey finished the 2019 Iditarod in 26th place. Holmes finished with him after they stayed together in White Mountain. Mackey slept in a stall in a pile with his dogs.
The two mushers came across the finish line in Nome five seconds apart.
“That was really a special moment to get to spend with somebody I looked up to so much,” Holmes said Thursday. “That wasn’t his winning team but you could see it didn’t matter to him whether he was winning or not because he was so connected to the dogs.”
Mackey ran the 2020 Iditarod but was disqualified after testing positive for methamphetamine. Mackey at the time promised to get professional treatment, saying he was “ready to confront this with all of my focus and determination.”
Mackey’s partner, Jenne Smith, died in an ATV accident in October 2020. She and Mackey had two children.
Cancer returned in Mackey’s throat last year, of a different type than his initial diagnosis involved.
In early August of this year, Mackey posted a message to his supporters saying that while treatment last year resolved the original tumors, “that wasn’t the end of it.”
He called the past several months the hardest and worst part, saying he had been hospitalized with 24-hour care.
”Just wanted to say thanks to my friends and family for everything and I love you all so much,” Mackey wrote in a social media post. “I Fully believe it is not my time yet and I’m still doing pretty good but I’m going to have a lot of things to get done in my life.”
A ‘DogFather’ and a champion
The Iditarod on Thursday remembered Mackey as embodying the spirit of the race and the tenacity of an Alaskan musher who “displayed the ultimate show of perseverance and was loved by his fans. Our condolences go out to his family, friends, fans and the mushing community.”
Whitehorse musher Rob Cooke, a regular presence at the Yukon Quest with his team of Siberian huskies, described Mackey as “probably the best dog man ever” and a legend of mushing “if not sports in general and life in particular. To win a 1,000 mile race is an amazing feat, to win both 1000 mile races in the same winter is incredible, to do that two years in a row unbelievable. To do all that as a cancer survivor and suffering all the side effects such as limited blood flow to his hands and loss of saliva glands when hydration is so important is truly legendary and inspirational.”
King said his enduring memory will be Mackey’s relationship with his dogs.
“I know his dogs loved him,” King said. “That’s how I judge a musher, especially the winners. I have memories of his dogs just standing up and looking at him like the Messiah had just arrived.”
Helen Hegener, an author and documentary filmmaker who specializes in distance mushing stories, in a message called Mackey a “dear friend” who was hard to lose.
On social media, she posted one of her photos of Mackey and his team coming into Dawson on the Yukon River in the 2000s, on his way to another Yukon Quest win.
This is how I will always remember my friend Lance Mackey, coming into Dawson City on the Yukon River, on the way to...Posted by Helen Hegener on Thursday, September 8, 2022
“He won that race — and the Iditarod — four times, a legendary run which will probably never be equaled,” Hegener wrote. “He was a dog whisperer, the DogFather, and a Champion in every sense of the word.”
[VIDEO ABOVE: Defending Iditarod champ Lance Mackey talks about his bold move to surge past four-time winner Jeff King in Kaltag. The gamble won Mackey the 2010 Iditarod. (Kyle Hopkins / ADN) ]