The Other Lance
I spent a fascinating day up in Fairbanks, Alaska, earlier this week with the world's best musher, Lance Mackey. The two-time defending Iditarod champion and cancer survivor (like that other Lance, Armstrong) is gearing up for his title defense next week. The 1,049-mile Anchorage to Nome race begins on March 7. I'll be profiling Mackey in USA Today next week (probably on Friday, March 6).
Mackey was gracious with his time and even took me out on a short run behind 20 of his best dogs, including Larry, the lead dog for his Iditarod wins. The 38-year-old Alaska native has a great story -- 10 years ago he was living in a tent on the Kenai peninsula with his family and he nearly died from throat cancer in 2002. He has roared back to become the only person to win the grueling Yukon Quest (the sport's other prestigious 1,000-mile race) and the Iditorad back-to-back in 2007, and then he repeated the feat in 2008. He chose not to run the Quest this year, but I happened to arrive in Fairbanks (the largest interior city in Alaska with about 90,000 residents) on the morning the first two finishers arrived. As we waited, Mackey held court with his legions of admirers and reporters as Sebastian Schnuelle of Canada captured his first Yukon Quest by a mere four minutes. He also eclipsed the record time Mackey set in 2007. Mackey took it well. "I'm not disappointed," he said. "it didn't pay any different to break the record. All that is, is bragging rights."
Here's a shot of yours truly at the Quest finish line shortly before Schnuelle arrived:
After the finish, we drove to Mackey's under-construction home about 25 miles outside of the city, where he raises and trains his dogs. Besides the 90-100 sled dogs on his property, he also cohabitates with about a dozen more canines that have the run of his small place. They range from chihuahas to jack russell terriers to rescue mutts of all shapes and sizes. Although Mackey is much better off financially now that he's at the top of the sport -- his stud fees can be as high as $1,500 -- it's a tough, hardscrabble existence that demands constant attention and takes a toll on the body. Mushing is physical in a way we don't normally associate with athletics. It's more akin to mountain climbing, where an ability to deal with harsh and ever-changing conditions often spells success. Strategy, equipment, attention to detail, focus and communication with the dogs are also key elements.
I'll try to post some video, pictures and other observations from my trip in the next few days. Meantime, below is a shot with Mackey's superstar dog, Larry: