The reintroduction of Jason Mackey

The veteran Iditarod musher spent years resetting his life and restarting his kennel before setting his sights on the race again. He returns to the race while coping with the death of his brother, an Iditarod giant.

KNIK — A few words rattle around in Jason Mackey’s head as he prepares to return to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The veteran musher has thought about them often since they were spoken to him last summer.

“It’s your turn.”

They came from his older brother, Lance Mackey, one of the most accomplished mushers in Iditarod history and a man famous in Alaska and beyond for his large and unvarnished personality. To Jason, Lance was the person he looked up to since they were boys.

“There’s nobody that knew Lance like I knew Lance,” he said.

Lance said “It’s your turn” to Jason, giving him a hug and a handshake before they parted at a family gathering last June, Jason said. Lance showed up at that Father’s Day breakfast looking thin and lethargic. He didn’t eat. His poor condition took Jason by surprise. It had been unclear to everyone how aggressively Lance’s cancer, first diagnosed in 2001, had returned.

Lance died two and a half months later. He was 52.

Earlier this month, Jason’s home in Knik was a workshop of Iditarod race preparations: blue dog booties stacked neatly on the kitchen table, clothing and cold-weather gear bundled nearby. Out back, dogs howled in the sun and a yellow and orange gangline stretched across the snow.

Jason returns to Iditarod at a complex moment. He’s not only coping with the loss of his brother but has spent years reestablishing order in his life and rebuilding his kennel from scratch. These days, he often thinks about what Lance meant. He doesn’t think it was about winning a race. Lance was simply saying he believed in him.

“I keep that in the back of my mind a lot, what he said to me,” Jason said.

“That’s not the only thing pushing me to do what I’m doing,” he said. “But it helps.”

A new trail forward

Mackey, 51, is no stranger to Iditarod challenges. A musher since he was 5 years old, Mackey is a six-time Iditarod finisher whose best result was 21st place. He comes from one of the sport’s most prominent families. Three of his family members have won the Iditarod -- his father, Dick Mackey, his brother Rick Mackey, and Lance, who did it four times.

But despite Jason’s decades of experience, this year’s race promises emotional peaks and valleys like never before. It’s been a long road back since his last race in 2017.

[When does the Iditarod start, and who’s competing? What to know ahead of the 2023 race]

That year, he and his wife, Lisa, sold all their dogs. Then they flew to Seattle, bought a Chrysler convertible and drove, taking in new places and searching for somewhere else to be.

“I just needed to get away from the dog scene. I needed to get away from everything, and just kind of find myself,” he said.

Mackey said he needed to escape the relentless grind of trying to afford a musher’s lifestyle. For years, he had divided his calendar between running dogs in the winter and construction work the rest of the year. January often brought the pressure to pay bills and buy supplies he couldn’t quite afford.

Even his best paydays from racing were spent before the check reached his hand. And a musher who races thinking about prize money, like he did, is doing it wrong, he said.

“I refused to live like that anymore,” he said.

By the time he left Alaska in 2017, his years spent in a work-hard, party-hard lifestyle had grown into a formidable problem with alcohol. Legal troubles included DUIs and an alcohol-related assault charge. It was a path of destruction, he now says.

“I didn’t drink because I liked it. I drank to get drunk …,” he said. “I just really had to step back.”

“He was in a very bad place,” said Lisa Mackey, Jason’s wife. “We had to regroup and get the negative people out of our life and start focusing on a positive, healthy future and doing things differently.”

Jason said he’s been clean from alcohol and drugs since he left Alaska in May 2017. “I have no time in my life for that anymore,” he said.

A couple things crystallized during his time away. For one, he realized he felt incomplete without sled dogs of his own to run. Second, Alaska is where he belongs. In 2018, he and Lisa moved back to Wasilla.

Over the next few years, Mackey built a career on the North Slope. He now oversees trucking to and from a drill rig. It’s satisfying work, he says, that’s provided a stable income and financial room to breathe. That’s new, he says.

He rebuilt his kennel by breeding, starting with a few dogs he got from other mushers, including four from Lance. His son Patrick, 31, helps regularly and other son Jason, 29, does so when he can. The race team now is big and strong, but mostly young. This is their first season in races.

“We’re just starting over,” he said, looking over the 30 dogs that surrounded him.

His happiest moments are on the trail with the dogs, he said.

“This is my vacation,” he said.

Though this Iditarod has a record-low 33 mushers, Mackey signed up for it on the first day registration opened last summer. Lisa, who has been married to Jason for 31 years, said he’s stronger, more focused and more organized than she’s ever seen him.

“I have never been more proud of him in my life than I am right now,” Lisa said.

The long climb ahead

In the 2015 Iditarod, a year the race began in Fairbanks due lack of snow on the traditional routes, Jason ran into Lance at a cabin in Minto. Lance had lost his mitts and was huddled close to a barrel stove, his fingers black with frostbite from cruel cold.

Lance said he was considering dropping out, but Jason didn’t want to leave him behind.

Jason proposed a deal: He would stick with Lance and help with his dog chores to get them to Nome if the four-time champ would share insight on the tactics that got him to the sport’s top level from 2007 to 2010. Mushers assisting other mushers is allowed in Iditarod, but Jason said they were pushing the limits of the rules. They ran the remainder of the race together, reaching the Nome finish line 22 seconds apart.

Along the way, Jason took close notice. For instance, Lance’s sled bag was open and his gear was prepared before he ever paused to snack his team, he said, ensuring a minimum amount of time spent at a standstill. “You gotta be thinking ahead …” Jason recalled Lance saying. “You prepare ahead of time.”

Jason said he wanted to be just like Lance from the time they were boys. In a lot of ways, he was Lance’s replica, and not just because of their resemblance.

“For many reasons, that wasn’t a good thing. Lance had a different side of him, a wild side of him, that I followed suit,” Jason said. “If my mom told us to be home at 10 o’clock at night, Lance would wait until 10:05 just to make her mad.”

After their parents divorced, the brothers spent years together in Coldfoot, where their father ran a truck stop. There, they received tutoring in a one-room building during the day and groomed trails and ran dogs together into the evening.

When they were a little older, Lance urged Jason to join him on a Bering Sea longline vessel. They fished commercially together for seven years. After Lance was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2001, Jason drove 30 miles to see and help him every day in Kasilof, he said. When Lance moved to Fairbanks and Jason moved to Nenana in 2005, they still got together all the time.

“We were inseparable. That’s just the way it was,” he said.

Jason’s Iditarod relaunch in the wake of his brother’s death has already made this year’s race a unique challenge, he said.

“I find myself standing at the meat saw crying,” Jason said. “I sit here and drink coffee in the morning and it just hits me.”

“Maybe it’ll get easier with losing Lance someday, but Iditarod time, it’ll always be hard,” he said.

Coping with loss was already hard prior to Lance’s death. His and Lance’s mother, Kathie Smith, died in 2019. “My mom was my everything,” he said.

Two boxes sit side-by-side on a corner shelf in Jason and Lisa’s Knik home. One contains Smith’s ashes. The other has Lance’s. When the moments seem right this year, Jason plans to pause and spread them along the Iditarod Trail

For Lance’s ashes, that might happen when he reaches the spot the two sometimes met up outside of Skwentna. He might spread some in Ophir, which was one of Lance’s favorite checkpoints. It might be in spots they faced tough times together, like at a shelter cabin near Shaktoolik where they once waited out a ferocious storm for 16 hours, wondering if the wind would blow it to bits. Jason will save some ashes for the finish line in Nome.

“There might be some tough moments out there this year,” he said. “But good tough moments.”

He knows Lance would advise him not to focus on what he can’t change, but to concentrate on what’s up ahead instead. Jason said he’ll consider it a win to move as fast and efficiently as he can with his team in the best possible health, no matter his race position.

Lisa said it seems like Jason wants to run the race for Lance too. Jason said there have been numerous moments in the run-up to the race during which he can feel Lance’s presence intensely. It happened recently on a late night training run as he watched his team run through dark by headlamp.

“He was right there,” Jason said. “I could hear him.”

Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at