The Iditarod Start (plus more on Mackey)

At least I can feel my fingers and toes. Two years ago, I attended the ceremonial start of the Iditarod in downtown Anchorage – as I did this morning – when temperatures dipped to unseasonably cold digits even for locals. I was a popsicle by the end. Today, fans were blessed with a gorgeously sunny day and a high of 23 degrees. It made a world of difference.

The downtown start is a blast. It’s a party-like atmosphere with free hot chocolate and cider, sausages on the grill and a cast of characters decked out in their finest Alaska furs. Mushers don’t quite have their game faces on, so they are chatty and interactive. Most pose for photos and sign autographs. The dogs are eager and yappy and pull anxiously on their harnesses. A mix of local and odd celebrities show up. I saw Gov. Sarah Palin (surrounded by secret service and mugging with her young infant), Libby Riddles, the first female winner of the Iditarod, and Olympic figure skater Dorothy Hamill, to name three. Mushers depart in two-minute intervals and with the entrants down to 68 this year, the kick off lasted just a couple of hours. But the party goes on downtown long after the mushers have left.

I took a few short videos as they prepared for the ceremonial run. Herewith are links a few clips: Four-time champion Martin Buser, cancer survivor DeeDee Jonrowe, and of course, two-time defending champ Lance Mackey. I also filmed a few clips of the dogs lining up, a musher putting on their booties, and one of them coming down the trail a few miles from the start.

My feature on Mackey ran in USA Today yesterday, but there is a lot more to say about the 38-year-old – and he had a lot more to say – than could be accommodated in the story. One telling moment came while we were driving to his home outside of Fairbanks. He suddenly pulled to the side, unable to resist something I could not decipher (I thought he had to relieve himself). He had spotted a glove on the shoulder, so he climbed out of his rickety 1991 Ford pickup and scooped it up, explaining that he found one just like it the other day. “That’s a new pair of gloves right there,” he beamed.

Mackey, coming off the most dominating 24-month run in the history of sled dog racing, lets nothing go to waste. Not his energy, as when he’s traversing the treacherous 1,000-mile Iditarod, which he’s won the last two years along with the other long-distance major, the Yukon Quest. Not his dogs, which are treated like pampered children despite his kennel’s shoestring budget. And certainly not his breath, after a life-threatening bout with throat cancer. “Mentally, I don’t think there’s anything that can basically hold me back from anything I want to do,” he said. “Physically, yeah, my body’s beat up a little bit, I got some side effects, but I make up for that I think mentally.”

Mackey, who had a sizable tumor removed from his neck from throat cancer, told me his doctors advised him against continuing to race sled dogs since the skin covering some major arteries in his neck where the tumor was removed is dangerously thin. At least, they told him, wear a protective plastic collar. He won’t. “Well, I’m not that way.  I would much rather fall off my sled with a big smile on my face, doing at least what I consider to be able to do at 100%, and not worrying about the consequences,” he said. “If I got this plastic collar on my neck, it’s always gonna be a reminder,” he said. “And I don’t want to remember it.”

He also bristled at the idea that running the Iditarod is cruel to the dogs, which some animals’ rights groups argue. “But like I said, if I come in 50th this year, I wouldn’t be disappointed, as long as my team is happy doing it, because I’m trying to prove to the rest of the world that it is not a cruel and inhumane sport,” he said. “These dogs love what they do, look forward to being out there, and I want people making the comments like, “Wow, look at that team, look how happy it is, look how fat it is,” he continued. “It still wants to run after 1,000 miles. Those are the comments I want to hear.”

He told me badly needed a new truck (and based on the condition of the one we rode in, cracked windshield and all, he’s right). He gave the 2007 truck he won as part of his Iditarod spoils to his wife, and traded in the second last year for a sports car – which was sitting covered in dust in his garage. The reason? He incurred two speeding tickets in one day and his wife apparently benched it.

He waxed on a variety of topics during our day together. On his maturing skills, he said: “I know that I have those abilities now. I have more of an ability to read my team before it breaks down. That’s where I think some of my competitors are weak. They are so pressured and so focused on doing well they set themselves up for disappointment. I have a simple approach. I do the best with what I have in front of me. If I come in 20th, it’s not for lack of trying.”

On the Alaska lifestyle: “We are nonchalant about what we do. More laid back, (at least) from my experience in being in the lower 48 the last couple of years. People in LA, for example, are in a hurry to go nowhere. They are pissed off at the world for no apparent reason and stuck in a lifestyle they don’t really care for.

He told me people in Alaska are looking for “adventure, escapement (sic), what they consider the real world. This is the real world to me. I don’t know how really to explain it. We have a different way of thinking.”

He even praised Gov. Sarah Palin as helping to bring attention to the state. “Her candidacy in the election I think was great publicity,” he said. “She was a great candidate and (it was) obvious that she didn’t have as much experience as needed. That wasn’t her fault. It was probably as much of a surprise to her when McCain offered that position. But hell, yeah, what an opportunity, win or lose. I have no doubt next time she runs, if she runs, more people will know about her and she’ll be more on top of worldwide events.”


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