Tonya would go back to living under the tarp on the beach in a second. Not that she's in the lap of luxury now. The half-built house she and Lance bought in Fox, Alaska, after he won his first Iditarod, still has exposed wiring in the kitchen, and Tyvek sheets cover some of the exterior. There's plenty of work to be done, but Tonya and Lance own everything: the house and the hilltop land that gives them a view of the lights of Fairbanks to the south, the Dodge Charger and three Dodge trucks that came with the four Iditarod wins, and the 120 huskies in the yard, each of which is worth thousands of dollars and is well fed thanks to a sponsorship from Redpaw dog food. The Comeback Kennel, as Lance calls it, has three paid helpers. Then there's Newton Marshall, an unlikely 27-year-old dogsledder from Jamaica who leases a team of huskies from Lance and will race in his second Iditarod next week. Another competitor will be Lance's 19-year-old stepson, Cain Carter, the youngest of Tonya's three children, who will make his Iditarod debut.
Like all true Alaskans, Lance and Tonya like their space. If they can see the smoke from a neighbor's chimney, they probably live too close. "We didn't have nothing then," Tonya says of the time the family lived on the beach, "[but] we were just so happy with each other. Now there's media, or people wanting autographs. On our anniversary we can't [go out] and have a nice dinner."
Then there are the girls in Nome, presenting their chests to be autographed by the top mushers at the Iditarod finish line. The famous seaport isn't much more than a quarter-mile strip whose 15 bars are open from 8 a.m. to 5 a.m., and during Iditarod week it's transformed into Sin City North. "There are probably 15 divorces every year after Nome," Tonya says.
Lance earned the nickname the People's Musher because he has gone out of his way to interact with fans in Nome. For Tonya it's an unwelcome echo of the days before they were together, when Lance would blow $100,000 in annual fishing earnings on cocaine, Crown Royal and hookers. By agreement with his wife, the People's Musher won't be making the bar rounds this year.
Lance has had an on-and-off relationship with his 18-year-old daughter, Alanah, from his first marriage, and he has started to take the fishing trips with his father that should have happened more when he was a child. He also fears having to get a "real job that I don't like, working for an ass," a worry that keeps his eyelids open as he trains dog teams straight through the Alaska winter nights.
Some of Mackey's competitors have begun to copy his tactics, even using dogs that he has sold them. But no one has quite mastered his marathon style. In 2008, when Paul Gebhardt, a top musher who had finished the Iditarod 11 times, went for a long run without sleep, he became so disoriented that he turned around just shy of a checkpoint. But there's no denying that Mackey's rivals are closing in on him. So Mackey must constantly reinvent himself and his team.
He prepares his dogs for anything: He might wake them up and feed them in the middle of the night to teach them that, during a race, the time to eat is whenever the food comes. He might come back to the yard from a training run only to turn around and head right back out, so when the moment comes to capitalize on an opponent's rest during the race, the dogs will be ready. He might drive a four-wheeler through the dog yard just to see which dogs will stay calm if a snowmobile comes zooming past at an Iditarod checkpoint.
A sled dog cannot be trained like a house dog, plied with food or cowed by physical punishment. A dog runs a thousand miles only if it wants to. So Mackey talks to his dogs every day and spends hours standing in the dog yard, assessing each dog's temperament and deciding which ones will get along with which in the middle of a blizzard 800 miles into a race.
Mackey doesn't necessarily choose his fastest dogs for the Iditarod team; he chooses the dogs that fit his personality. Like him, they may not be the most impeccable biological specimens; they are among the less well-behaved at the race start, and his competitors often reach higher top speeds on the trail. But his dogs yearn to run. They brood if he doesn't choose them in training. They eat ravenously at every opportunity. They sleep immediately when they have the chance. And they focus on their leader: In a picture Mackey enjoys showing, a moose is crossing his race trail and not a single dog in his team is paying it any mind.
Jeff King, a four-time Iditarod champ who retired last year after Mackey repeatedly kept him from a fifth title, called Mackey the Mozart of dogsled racing, with an unequaled understanding of his dogs' personalities. "Since I was a little boy," Mackey says, "I've always been infatuated by what motivates a dog to pull down the trail."