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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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They call it the Last Great Race on Earth, and it can do strange things to a person. The sleep deprivation, the long dark nights, the piercing cold that shreds the connection between mind and body—it's not unheard of for an Iditarod musher smack in the middle of the frozen Bering Sea to stare into the bright sunlight and, convinced a rogue warm spell has swept in, start ripping his clothes off at -50°. Lance Mackey once saw an Inuit woman smiling at him along the course. Or so he thought until he returned the greeting and found himself waving at a lonely snow bank.

So it would not have been far-fetched to think that Mackey had spilled his marbles into Norton Sound late in the running of the 2007 Iditarod, the 1,161-mile dogsled race across Alaska. He was in the lead with no competitors in sight, just five miles from the finish line on Front Street in Nome, when he decided to slow down.

This was before Mackey had won a single Iditarod, let alone four straight; before he used what he calls his marathon style—catnapping as his sled moves and covering 100-mile chunks at a moderate pace without prolonged rest, instead of sprinting from rest stop to rest stop like most other racers—to win an unprecedented double (the Yukon Quest, the world's other 1,000-mile dogsled race, and just weeks later the Iditarod) not once but twice; before he became so dominant that slower competitors complained they had no chance to finish within five days of him (the requirement for an official place and a commemorative belt buckle); and before a rival pushed for drug testing at the 2010 Iditarod, suspecting that Mackey's secret was his prescription for medical marijuana to alleviate the side effects of cancer treatment. (Mackey abstained during the race and still won.)

On that day in March 2007 when he stopped on the ice atop the Bering Sea, Mackey had not yet accomplished any of that. Yet there he was, yelling "Whoa!" and bringing his sled to a complete stop. He walked to the head of his team, threw his arms around the gray-and-white muzzle of his lead dog, an Alaskan husky named Larry, and told him, "Life just changed." Then he went down the line crying and thanking each dog on his team.

In his mind Mackey also thanked his wife, Tonya, whom he had known since the second grade in Wasilla, Alaska. Ten years earlier they had both been addicted to cocaine and were in the habit of using Amanda, Tonya's nine-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, as their designated driver. When they finally decided to get clean, they left their home in Nenana, Alaska, on a single night's planning and moved 465 miles south to Kasilof, on the Kenai Peninsula. It was June 2, 1998, Lance's 28th birthday. In Kasilof they spent the summer living under a tarp on the beach with Amanda and Tonya's other daughter, Brittney, then eight. The entertainment center was a battery-powered TV that Tonya wired to two large speakers, and dinner was campfire-cooked flounder that the kids picked off the beach. Together, Lance and Tonya went cold turkey, and as soon as he made enough money—he worked on a construction crew, on fishing expeditions and at a local sawmill—they made a down payment on some property in the woods three miles from the beach. There they built a log house and insulated it with clothes from the Salvation Army.

With his old addiction out of the way, Lance threw himself into a new one: raising sled dogs. His neighbors included well-known mushers, and that rekindled his childhood passion for the sport. He began by taking in street mutts and other mushers' castoffs—the kind of dogs Lance could relate to. He couldn't afford the sleekest, fastest huskies, so he bred dogs that could endure. Dogs like Rosie ("a trotting tornado," he calls her) that he bought for $100. His winning bloodlines began when he bred Rosie to a friend's dog named Doc Holliday, another husky that couldn't win a sprint but would eat anytime food was set down before him and had the Arctic-adapted webbed feet that make for a low-maintenance distance runner.

Mackey had enough dogs to run a competitive team—45, including 15 puppies—in time to enter the 2001 Iditarod. He finished in 12 days, 18 hours, 35 minutes and 13 seconds, good enough for 36th place. Throughout the race, though, he was plagued by what he at first thought was an abscessed tooth. But abscessed teeth don't cause severe headaches, blurry vision and blackouts, so Mackey went directly from the finish line to Nome's regional hospital. What he had was throat cancer, which had been repeatedly misdiagnosed. Less than 10 days after his first Iditarod, he went into the kind of surgery before which the doctor tells relatives to say anything they might regret leaving unsaid. But Tonya was so confident of Lance's recovery that she kept his breeding program going so he wouldn't miss a beat when he returned to racing.

The surgeons removed a softball-sized tumor along with skin and muscle tissue surrounding it. Mackey was left with such paper-thin skin on the right side of his neck, over his carotid artery, that doctors told him one bad scratch from a dog would kill him even if he were standing in the ER, much less out on the trail. He had to learn to keep his throat moist so he could breathe, because his salivary glands had also been removed in the surgery. And it took some time for him to regain dexterity in his left hand after he persuaded a doctor to cut off the index finger, which throbbed with pain from nerve damage caused by radiation treatments.

Mackey entered the 2002 Iditarod with a feeding tube in his stomach, but he scratched after 440 miles. He competed in smaller races the next two years and returned to the Iditarod in 2004. By 2007 he was a contender. His cancer was and still is in remission, though he suffers lingering pain and other side effects from the radiation treatment, for which he has the marijuana prescription.

During the '07 Iditarod, as Mackey led for the first time ever, one of the runners on his sled broke and left him balancing on a single strip of plastic in back. He called Tonya at the video store she managed in Fairbanks and said he needed a new sled within eight hours, when he would arrive at the next checkpoint, in McGrath, more than 200 miles from Fairbanks. Tonya slammed down the phone, had a short cry over the impossibility of pulling off the job and then got on the phone again. On her seventh call she found a pilot who could be ready for takeoff in 30 minutes. To get the $1,200 he asked for, Tonya went deep into her Rolodex and remembered that a friend who was a distributor for Alaskan Brewing Co. had once said, "If you ever need anything... ." When she reached him he didn't hesitate to give out his credit card number. Seven-and-a-half hours later a replacement sled arrived at the McGrath checkpoint.

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