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Cool Days on the Dog Farm
DAVID EPSTEIN
March 07, 2011
Next week Lance Mackey will choose 16 of his 120 huskies, tie them to his sled and try to become the first musher to win five straight Iditarods. But even that can't compete with his other triumphs, over cocaine addiction and throat cancer
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March 07, 2011

Cool Days On The Dog Farm

Next week Lance Mackey will choose 16 of his 120 huskies, tie them to his sled and try to become the first musher to win five straight Iditarods. But even that can't compete with his other triumphs, over cocaine addiction and throat cancer

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So maybe it makes sense that Mackey stopped on that sea ice, with tears freezing to his cheeks, to thank his dogs. He'd been crying for 77 miles as he pulled clear of the field, thinking of how he'd almost died from drug addiction and from cancer and remembering all the people who had supported him and the ones who had given up on him. And after nine days alone with his dogs, he thought about how hard it would be to return to the world of humans.

"I'm going to get to the finishing chute," he recalls thinking, "and with all the people and the media, I won't get to tell my dogs how proud I am of them. This was something I'd dreamed about since I was a little boy."

Every once in a while, something happens in sports that is so inconceivable that nobody considered making a rule to deal with it. Such was the finish of the 1978 Iditarod.

Dick Mackey was a founder of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, in 1973. He would become fond of saying, "You ain't nothing as a musher unless you win the Iditarod." So it didn't sit too well with him that he placed no higher than sixth in his first five attempts.

Dick's son Lance was only seven years old during the '78 race, but he can remember the commotion as his father, running beside his sled and nearly suffocating in his parka, barreled down Front Street neck and neck with Rick Swenson, the defending champion, who'd also jumped off his sled to run. Mackey's lead dog crossed the finish line first, at which point Mackey collapsed to the ground and his team stopped, straddling the line as Swenson and his team zoomed past. After 14 days, 18 hours, 52 minutes and 24 seconds, the race had come down to the blink of an eye. Who had won depended on whether winning meant getting your entire sled or just your lead dog across the line first. With no rule in place for such a circumstance, race marshal Myron Gavin appealed to common sense. "They don't take a picture of the horse's ass, do they?" he said. Thus it was that Dick Mackey became an Iditarod champion and his son's hero.

"I was standing right at the finish line," Lance says. "It was exciting, it was dramatic, it was emotional. It was embedded in my head. I have no doubt that something in that moment, in that one second, affected my passion or my drive or my commitment. It not only changed my dad's life, it changed mine."

So imagine the crushing blow Lance felt when he was 10 years old and his mother, Kathie, took him and his younger brother, Jason, to the Wasilla airstrip to watch planes take off and to explain to them that a divorce meant that they might see even less of Dad, who was often gone anyway, off on construction projects as an ironworker. With his father absent and his mother working tirelessly as a bush pilot and a dishwasher to support her two sons, Lance was free to look for trouble. He excelled at finding it, and by the time he was 15 the arrests were mounting: consumption of alcohol by a minor, drunk and disorderly, fighting, public urination. Before he was old enough to drive, he stole Kathie's checkbook, bought a '68 Dodge Charger and drove north to pawn three guns he'd swiped from the family's gun cabinet. (His mother didn't press charges, and Lance returned the Dodge to the seller.)

Kathie decided Lance was due for some face time with his father. So she sent him up above the Arctic Circle to be with Dick, who was now selling food out of a converted school bus to truckers on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. It was the start of a lucrative restaurant and service station that would become the town of Coldfoot, Alaska (pop. 13). Kathie also thought Lance would benefit from some time away from his miscreant friends. But Lance, who was already using marijuana and dabbling in speed and cocaine, says, "The truck drivers were as bad [a bunch] of junkies as anybody you ever met." He learned to barter a tire change for drugs.

Lance felt more like Dick's employee than his son, and his errant attempts to get his father's attention—he used Dick's truck to run over all the cones marking the local airstrip—only brought him a few minutes of scolding. So after two years in Coldfoot, Lance returned to Wasilla and resumed his life of petty crime. Until the day, when he was nearly 18, that his mother finally refused to go through the Saturday ritual of picking him up from jail.

After that Lance made for Kodiak Island, on the Gulf of Alaska, and then Dutch Harbor, on the Bering Sea. He worked for 10 years as a commercial fisherman, mostly on long-liners. All the dogs that had belonged to his dad and to him had been sold or given away. His Iditarod dream was essentially dead. But even so, Lance would occasionally tell his crewmates—many of whom were from Mexico and didn't know that dogsledding was a sport—that someday he would win the Iditarod. "I always thought I would," he says. "I just didn't know when. Or how many times."

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