by Andrew Hinkelman
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- In the span of two years and three Iditarods, Lance Mackey has gone from miracle worker to the undisputed reigning king of The Last Great Race.
Mackey won his third consecutive Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday, putting an exclamation point on mushing's latest dynasty.
Only two other mushers have won three in a row -- Susan Butcher from 1986-88 and Doug Swingley 1999-2001. No one has won four straight.
"I'm so proud to get through this," Mackey said. "This one was really, really smooth. I've never had a team work like this as a whole, come together in every situation. In every situation they seemed to excel."
Mackey finished at 11:38 a.m. with an official time of 9 days, 21 hours, 38 minutes, 46 seconds. He still had 15 dogs in harness, dropping only one along the 1,000-mile trail.
"I feel great, but I feel beat up a little bit," he said. "It was a pretty demanding trail since about Anvik."
Gov. Sarah Palin called to congratulate Mackey shortly after he pulled in under Nome's burled arch.
"We are considering this team the greatest in Iditarod history," Palin said. "You continue to give all of us hope. The adversity you have overcome, the challenges you have met -- believe me, it resonates across our nation and across our world."
For Mackey -- a cancer survivor who came to prominence with an unprecedented double-double in the Yukon Quest and Iditarod in 2007 called the Mackey Miracle -- Wednesday's victory capped a dominating performance.
The race was essentially over at the halfway point, with Mackey's team of dogs from the Comeback Kennel building a huge lead over the rest of the field.
Over the first 346 miles from Willow to Takotna, where he took his 24-hour layover, Mackey rested his team a total of 15 hours, 48 minutes in seven checkpoints over almost two and a half days.
At that point he was still jousting with other contenders like Jeff King, Sebastian Schnuelle, Aaron Burmeister and Hugh Neff.
But after leaving Takotna, Mackey pushed all the way through the next 283 miles with only two significant stops -- 6 hours, 23 minutes in Iditarod and his mandatory 8-hour stop along the Yukon River in Anvik where he enjoyed a gourmet meal for being the first to arrive.
"I had no intention of going that far," Mackey said.
But his dogs had other plans.
"They were pulling on my hook barking and screaming like it was the start line," Mackey said, relating an encounter with Burmeister during a stop along the trail.
So they continued on, and Mackey's team gave him an insurmountable lead.
In fact, once he reached the halfway point of Iditarod, Mackey was the first musher into every checkpoint except Grayling all the way to the finish.
By the time he reached Eagle Island Mackey was essentially one checkpoint ahead of the competition the rest of the way. Because of his cushion -- and some brutally harsh weather along the Bering Sea coast -- Mackey took longer, more frequent rests.
"I'm so proud of this team, they're the real heroes and the real stars here," he said. "I was just a fortunate passenger who sometimes knows what the hell to do right."
Even with the huge lead in the second half of the race, Mackey didn't let up on the trail, often turning in the fastest runs from checkpoint to checkpoint. The competition couldn't even keep up, let alone make up ground.
Unlike his first two Iditarod victories -- where he came from behind over the last third of the race, and did that after winning the Yukon Quest a couple of weeks earlier -- this 2009 championship is a testament to the skill and strategizing of the man and the athleticism and pedigree of his dogs.
The 2007 win was dubbed a "miracle" for a lot of reasons. No one had every won the Quest and Iditarod in the same year, and Mackey did it with largely the same group of dogs. But aside from the mushing accomplishment there was Mackey's back story -- a cancer survivor from a respected mushing family who had struggled with personal demons in the past only to rise to the top in his sport.
The gregarious, easy-going personality of Mackey endeared him to fans, and when he returned in 2008 to do it all again, the idea that the previous year was a miracle faded. The idea that Lance Mackey is an elite dog driver began to take hold.
Now there can be no doubt.
With a team mixed with veterans from previous winning runs and some new blood to indicate this dynasty may just be getting started, Mackey crushed a field full of championship contenders.
"I have a nice young leader," Mackey said. "She's going to be a superstar next year."
Perhaps his domination this year is owed in part to Mackey's decision to not compete in the Quest. Instead he stayed out of that race to help Harry Alexie, a rookie from Bethel and Army National Guardsman, prepare for the Iditarod.
Alexie, using a team of dogs borrowed from the Comeback Kennel, is contending for rookie of the year honors.
Story from KTUU Channel 2
Contact Andrew Hinkelman at email@example.com
Photo from Lance Mackey's Come Back Kennel