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'Unpredictable' Lance Mackey

Elina Frumerman

Photo: Al Grillo, AP

Photo: Al Grillo, AP

ANCHORAGE — The last stretch of road leading to Lance Mackey's rustic home outside Fairbanks is marked "Mackeys Way."

"It might not be the right way," says the two-time defending Iditarod Trail Sled Dog champion, "but it's my way."

It's a trail that has made the small mushing world stand up and take notice.

When the 37th Iditarod begins Saturday with the ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage, Mackey will be the odds-on favorite to join Susan Butcher (1986-88) and Doug Swingley (1999-2001) as the only mushers to win three races consecutively.

The race, which began in 1973 in memory of a 1925 sled dog rush to relay diphtheria serum to Nome, covers about 1,100 miles across precarious and frigid Alaska terrain.

In 2007 cancer survivor Mackey became the first person to win both the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest and the Iditarod in the same season, an unprecedented feat many thought impossible. Then he did it again in 2008 to put together the most dominating 24 months in mushing history.

This January Mackey decided to sit out the Yukon Quest so he could assist an Iditarod rookie musher that will be using some of his dogs. But he says his team is ready, and he is more confident than ever.

"I didn't run the Quest, but I made up that mileage in other places," he says. "I am not behind."

Like many Iditarod veterans, Mackey comes from a bloodline of great mushers. His father, Dick, was a one of the founders of the Iditarod and won it in 1978. His oldest brother, Rick, followed with a victory in 1983.

Mackey's mother, the legend goes, competed in a race while eight months pregnant with Lance, who says "I can honestly say I was doing this sport before I was born."

A decade ago, the 38-year-old Alaskan was living in a tent on the Kenai Peninsula with his wife and four kids with $300 to his name. In 2001 after completing his first Iditarod, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. The prognosis was not good.

"We were pretty certain we were going to lose him," says his father, Dick Mackey.

The doctors were able to cut away the tumor in his neck — along with some of his jawbone — and Mackey has been cancer-free since. He took a year off and has roared back.

Mackey lives in a half-built house on 5 acres about 25 miles outside of Fairbanks that has no electricity and an outhouse. It's partly by design: No power means fewer neighbors, and more space to run and breed his dogs.

A dozen non-competing canines — chihuahuas, Jack Russell terriers and pomeranians — live in the simple, chaotic home he shares with his wife of 12 years, Tonga (pronounced TAHN-yuh) and his youngest son, Cain. His living room is lined with mushing trophies. The ground floor is cluttered with sledding equipment and gear, including a pile of dog booties used for long runs drying in front of a fireplace.

The centerpiece of his property is the Comeback Kennel: 90-100 sled dogs chained close to their small wooden houses laid out in front of his rustic home. When he comes near, the 40-60 pound endurance athletes bark, yodel, or pull at their harnesses in eager anticipation of the trail ahead. Run on a shoestring budget, his operation is now the envy of mushers everywhere.

"This might sound a little ridiculous, but my dogs come first, and my family's second, because the dogs provide for my family," says plainspoken, laid-back, leather-tough Mackey.

Provide they have. His hardscrabble past has been replaced by local fame and a six-figure income, which he estimates was around $185,000 in 2008. Some of that is from race winnings — the 2009 Iditarod champ will earn $69,000 and a new pickup — but also from speaking, sponsorships and stud fees, which can run up to $5,000.

Mushing is not for the delicate, and Mackey wears the physical toll the sport, and cancer, have taken on his body. A water bottle is never far away, since the radiation and surgery left him with no saliva glands. His face is worn and his left index finger is missing (he had the nerve-damaged and painful appendage removed).

But there is a swagger in his straight-legged limp (from a recent training accident) and a self-belief in his trademark raspy voice.

"Mentally, I don't think there's anything that can basically hold me back from anything I want to do," he says.

In Alaska, where mushing is the official sport, Mackey is a minor celebrity. "I haven't bought lunch in I don't know how long," he marvels.

His Iditarod wins and battle with cancer have earned him magazine features, ESPY award nominations in 2007-08 and an appearance last fall on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien." But his flirtation with wider fame has little appeal.

In a classic Alaska sense, Mackey remains a modest, rugged individual who eschews glamour and prefers most of all to work for himself on his own terms.

"I'm getting pretty used to working for myself," he says.

What separates Mackey from his peers as a competitor is his tenacity, his hunger to win, and his thorough understanding of the athletes in front of his sled.

Rivals say he has an "intuitive" knowledge of his dog team and a keen sense of when to push them and when to hold back. He's also tricky. In a neck-and-neck battle with Jeff King last year, Mackey snuck out when King overslept and took the lead with just 100 miles left.

He's also a master at withstanding biting winds, temperatures that can reach 70 below and sleep deprivation during the race.

"I used to think there was no one tougher than me physically," King says. "Now I'm not sure."

Mackey also isn't afraid to take risks, which some attribute to his brush with death.

"If you've been to the edge and back, you tend to go to the edge a little sooner than others," four-time winner Martin Buser says.

"I'm unpredictable, very, and that's scary to my competition, I know it is," Mackey says.

There are 67 entrants in this year's Iditarod, a third less than last year's record 97, but Mackey will face plenty of competition. Eighteen of the top 20 finishers from 2008 are returning, including five champions who together own 16 Iditarod wins. Mackey's superstar lead dog, 8-year-old Larry, is also nearing retirement.

In a race with so many variables, Mackey knows anything can happen.

"I'm going to be tough to beat," he says, "but if I come in 30th, I won't be disappointed as long as my team is happy doing it."