Sled-dog racing pundits said it couldn't be done: Winning both the brutal 1,000-mile Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race and the punishing 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in one year, and both in little more than a month.
And then a hardscrabble, cancer-beating musher from Fairbanks by the name of Lance Mackey did it.
But that was last year.
What could Mackey possibly do to top it this year?
How about an instant replay?
First the Quest in bone-numbing, flesh-freezing, 40-below-zero cold that left Mackey with frostbitten feet.
Then the Iditarod, with Mackey still hobbling on those frostbitten feet, in sled-dog-taxing warmth often near 40 degrees above zero, sometimes warmer.
"When you're on a roll...,'' former Iditarod champ Libby Riddles said as Mackey was leaving Anchorage's Fourth Avenue on March 1.
When you're on a roll, when your planets are aligned just right, the impossible becomes the probable and the probable becomes the real.
Officially, at 2:46 a.m. today, Mackey rode his sled behind a smoothly trotting dog team that passed beneath the burled arch on Nome's Front Street to claim a second straight Iditarod victory. He immediately snacked the dogs, then took a cell phone call from his father, Dick, the only musher ever to win the Iditarod in a photo finish. The elder Mackey has retired to Arizona.
"(It's) so cool, Dad,'' Lance said. "You should see them (dogs); they all ate. They're all standing here. They're incredible.''
Jeff King followed him into Nome, arriving at 4:05 a.m.
Indeed, Mackey's team looked ready to go run and win another race, though this Iditarod victory had not come easy.
Mackey lost a key lead dog early. Then he failed to pay enough attention to a crack in the foot of ole Larry, and another key lead dog ended up with an infected foot that made it difficult for him to soldier on. And from the time Mackey took the lead at Ruby on the Yukon River, just past halfway, almost to within sight of the finish line at Nome, he had the 16-dog freight train of four-time champ Jeff King chomping at his heels.
Along the trail, King tried to rattle Mackey by traveling so close behind that Mackey could hear King's iPod playing through the battery-powered speakers the Denali Park musher draped over his chest.
"What do you have hooked up to your stereo,'' Mackey asked at one point.
"Is it that loud?'' King said.
On the flats, too, there was no doubt King's dog's were faster. But at the end, when the mushers were confronted by two difficult climbs, Mackey's gritty canines showed their stuff.
On the trail from Elim to White Mountain on the Bering Sea coast, climbing up over the 1,000-foot summit in the Kwiktalik Mountains that mushers know as "Little McKinley,'' Mackey put time on King's dogs. And again in the Topkok Hills out of White Mountain on the stretch run to Nome, he pulled away, building on what had been a 57-minute lead at the 8-hour mandatory White Mountain stop.
Most of that lead he stole with a bit of craftiness one might not expect from a lunch-bucket musher in a dirty red snowsuit. Maybe that worked to his advantage. King certainly never risked napping for long on the Bering Sea coast when Doug Swingley was in the game with his disciplined, machinelike teams.
However, Swingley, the four-time champ from Lincoln, Mont., called it a career this year. The body was still capable, he said, but as a 50-something musher he just couldn't harness the self-discipline to compete at the level he thought his dog team deserved. King, too, is a 50-something musher. Two years ago, he became the oldest ever to win the Iditarod.
This year he dozed in Elim while the 37-year-old Mackey sneaked away onto the trail to gain 54 of the 57 minutes in that crucial lead at White Mountain.
King had expected Mackey to rest his dogs for at least a couple hours in Elim. King thought that would give him enough time to steal a nap after days with little sleep.
He got the nap, all right, but Mackey got the lead.
When King woke, his competition was long gone. His reaction?
"Pissed,'' he said in an interview before leaving White Mountain for Nome. "If this race would have been longer, that maneuver would have been more incidental. But where it happened -- I told him it was the (game-winning) Hail Mary pass.''
Mackey acted as if to stay in Elim for a time, all the while keeping an eye on King. When King's eyes closed, Mackey figured it wouldn't be long until the bespectacled, bifocaled musher from Denali Park was sawing logs. And with that, Mackey tiptoed out of the village.
"He pulled it off,'' King said.
For the second time in this Iditarod, too, it should be noted.
Mackey made a very similar move in Unalakleet on Sunday after arriving at the coast 90 minutes behind King. It was the first and last time King had the lead in the latter half of the race. While King napped at the checkpoint, Mackey fed and watered his dogs, went to get some sweets and coffee at the local java joint, then decided to hit the trail.
"My dogs are shaking their heads right now, wondering what the hell I'm doing,'' Mackey said as he snapped his team into harness.
The move was a risky one. Asked to go so far on so little rest, the dogs could have called a strike. Instead, they marched on.
Mackey suddenly had a 44-minute lead.
But it was not to last.
The King swifts gobbled up trail again. By the village of Koyuk on the coast, they were back within 8 minutes of the leader, and King looked to be almost toying with Mackey, just waiting for his chance to pass and charge on to victory.
Even Mackey thought that was the case.
And King was more cautious in Koyuk than he had been in Unalakleet. When he lay down next to Mackey in the checkpoint, he made sure to put his feet on Mackey's boots so the competition couldn't slip away. The ploy worked. When Mackey went for his boots, King woke up.
In Elim, King didn't think to do that.
"I laid down in Elim next to the door and put guard down as to any various cunning,'' King said. "He baited me right into it. I don't think it was an accident. I think that is cool, classic. It's honorable. It did not involve deceit.''
A little deception, maybe, but not deceit.
"He was still sleeping, so I snuck out,'' Mackey said. "He's mad about it because, honestly, there is no way I could outrun his team if I left at the exact same time.''
That last observation might have been the only thing Mackey got wrong in the whole race.
On the last leg of the race to Nome, Mackey's team showed it was even better than he thought. His dogs were faster there than King's.
They sealed the deal on Iditarod 2008 by making the all-important 50-mile run over the hills between White Mountain and the last checkpoint at Safety about 10 minutes faster than King's dogs.
At Safety, less than 20 miles out from the City of the Golden Sands, with a 57-minute lead grown to more than a hour, King knew it was over.
So did everyone else.
"Lance is going to win and make a fool out of Jeff," said Rick Swenson from Two Rivers, the Iditarod's only five-time champion. He was at White Mountain waiting out his mandatory layover before dueling for a top-10 spot as Mackey closed on Nome and history.
For the victory, Mackey collected $69,000 and another new Dodge truck. More important, though, he silenced the naysayers who thought last year's victory might have been a fluke.
Nobody can harbor that thought anymore.
What looked for a time like King's chance to join Swenson as the only mushers to have won the Iditarod five times became instead Mackey's chance to elevate his profile in race lore:
The Impossible, Part Deux.
By CRAIG MEDRED