ONE MAN AND HIS DOGS
Born in Anchorage in Alaska, he came from a family of dog sled ‘mushers’.
His father, Dick, was a founder of the famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which goes from Anchorage to Nome (entirely in Alaska), a distance of 938 miles.
Dick was also a winner of the race, having won it in 1978 by the margin of one second. Lance’s half-brother Rick won the race in 1983, and his younger brother Jason participates in it now.
Lance began dog sled racing as a child when his father built him a sled. He won the very first race that he entered.
He liked to point out that it actually wasn’t his first race. When his mother was 7 months pregnant with him, she had entered the Women’s North American Championships and come 4th. Lance considered that was his first race.
When he was still quite young, Lance’s parents divorced, and he went to live with his mother. There, he went off the rails and was constantly being arrested by the police.
So, his mother sent him back to live with his father, at Coldfoot Truck Stop, the most northerly truck stop in the world. There, Lance became a fisherman.
He entered his first serious sled race as a ‘Musher’ (dog handler), in 2001. It was the Iditarod. Lance finished 36th out of 57 entrants, but still won a prize of $1,046.
During the race, he noticed a lump in his neck whilst shaving. It was diagnosed as throat cancer, and he was forced to undergo intense treatment. As a consequence of the radiation treatment, Lance lost most of his teeth.
Lance raced the Iditarod in 2002 with a tube in his stomach. His doctors sponsored his team.
He seemed to recover, but was left with a need to constantly drink water. He also developed Raynaud’s disease, which left him particularly susceptible to cold conditions – not ideal for a dog sled racer.
Nevertheless, Lance rose quickly through the ranks of the Mushers, to become one of the top racers.
In one of his early races, a competitor noticed a runner had dropped off Lance’s sled and he had no spares. When he reached the next town, he tried to buy a replacement part. Lance was quoted $3,000 – which he refused to pay. So, he continued the race with one runner – and won it.
In 2007, Lance became the first person ever to win the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest in the same year. This was a particularly notable achievement as the races were just 6 weeks apart and it meant his dogs ran over 2,000 miles.
He was the third member of his family to win the Iditarod (after father Dick and brother Rick), and all three of them won it wearing the number 13.
Another musher, Jeff King, was his biggest rival. In the Iditarod the following year (2008), they were neck and neck with just over 100 miles to go.
Then, Lance stopped for the night. He unhitched his dogs, took off their booties and put down straw for them. Jeff King figured it was safe to do the same thing.
When Jeff awoke in the morning, Lance and his dogs were gone – and they went on to win the race.
Shortly afterwards, Lance published a book. He sent Jeff King a signed copy with the words, ‘You snooze, you lose’, written in it.
Lance won the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest again in 2009 – both for the third time running, and then he decided to take a year off, so he didn’t defend his titles.
He absolutely loved his dogs. Other people commented on the ‘deep understanding’ between them. His particular favourite was called Zorro, but the dog had an accident with a snow machine and lost the use of its legs.
Lance carefully tended Zorro back to health, using physiotherapy and acupuncture, and eventually the dog got the use of its legs back – although it could not compete again. It became a well-loved family pet.
At one point, every dog in Lance’s team was the offspring of Zorro. Jeff King said, “I know his dogs loved him. I have memories of his dogs just standing up and looking at him like the Messiah had arrived.”
Lance ran the Comeback Kennel in Fairbanks, Alaska. However, there was some controversy. Other competitors accused him of dubious practices. He used CBD (Cannabidiol), which involves cannabis, to help aid the recovery of injured dogs.
Lance was married, and divorced, twice – and admitted he was addicted to cocaine and alcohol.
He returned to the Iditarod in 2011, and came second, and was also fourth in the Yukon Quest. From there, he gradually slipped down the ranks as other mushers overtook him. He never won the Iditarod again.
Then Raynaud’s Disease began to plague him more and more. Pain in his index finger of his left hand was so great that it had to be amputated. He increasingly found it harder to clean out the kennels in the wintertime, due to the cold conditions.
In the 2015 Iditarod, two of his dogs died. He was devastated at being accused of not taking enough care of them.
That same year, there was a film made about him entitled ‘The Great Alone’. He was portayed as being easy going and down-to-earth, earning him the nickname ‘The People’s Champion’.
In 2016, Lance took up car racing as a hobby.
He got married for a third time, to Jenne Smith, and they had two children, a son called Atigun, and a daughter called Lozen.
The Mackey family still courted controversy. In 2017, Lance’s younger brother Jason, was taken to court for stealing dogs from another competitor’s kennels.
Then tragedy struck. In 2020, Jenne was killed in an ATV (All-Terrain Vehicle) accident. Both children were under 5 years old at the time.
Lance raced the Iditarod again in 2021 but came 21st. The top 30 racers had to take a drug test – and Lance failed his. He was immediately suspended. He promised to go into rehab.
However, his throat cancer returned, and he died aged just 52.
He had won all 3 of the big Alaskan dog sled races – the Iditarod 3 times, the Yukon Quest 4 times and the Tustumena once.
Nic Petit, a friend and fellow racer, said, “The man has inspired, and will inspire me and countless others. We can’t replace him. So, we’ll have to race in his name.”
There is also an asteroid named after Lance.
There is a photograph often shown in the USA, of a truck going down the Alaskan Highway. In the dirt on the back, somebody has written ‘Superman wears Lance Mackey’s pajamas (sic)’.
RIP – Racing In Perishing (weather)