Musher Lance Mackey rubs the head of lead dog 'Rev' after rubbing ointment onto one of the dog's front legs at the Takotna, Alaska, checkpoint on Wednesday, March 10, 2010, during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
(AP Photo/Anchorage Daily News, Bob Hallinen)
I think I have gotten about as much sleep the past couple weeks as the mushers in the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. I've just been a whole lot more comfortable than they have.
On Tuesday afternoon, a work friend who is as much an Iditarod addict as I took a break and watched streaming live video (bless the Internet) of Lance Mackey making his way into Nome, Alaska to win the race a historic four times in a row.
We followed the finish on the Iditarod Insider, the web site to which I've been glued for the past week and a half. Each musher's sled carries a GPS tracker, so I could see 24/7 the location of every team.
I've been known to get up in the night and get sucked into the computer room to check out the standings! I got a good night's sleep Monday night, though, after Mackey made it into White Mountain, about 70 miles outside of Nome, where mushers must take a mandatory 8-hour rest.
Others have won it in faster times (I believe this year brings Mackey into second place in that category - he missed the record time by slightly over an hour), and others have won it four times, but never four times in a row.
After weaving his dogs through a gauntlet of excited fans on Front Street in Nome, Mackey fed and hugged each one, and then talked about his journey. Then, after nine days on the trail in wind and snow and minus 40F temperatures, and before resting, he said he "might have one more in me."
One of Mackey's staunchest competitors, Denali musher Jeff King, who has won the Iditarod four times, just not four in a row, has said he is hanging it up after this race. He was in position to come in third on Tuesday, behind Hans Gatt, who gave Mackey a good run for his money.
Gatt outran Mackey in the Yukon Quest this year. It's the other 1,000-mile contest that Mackey has won twice in the same year he won the Iditarod, another feat no one else has accomplished.
"Hans and Jeff King were the two main characters I was looking at this year," Mackey said at Nome. "At Unalakleet, I wasn't sure I had the team to win."
But Mackey took a gamble on a long run with a short rest at one checkpoint, something he is known for, and something for which his dogs are famous.
Prescott Valley veterinarian Michael Walker, who is in his sixth year of volunteering at the Iditarod, said Mackey appears to have bred a line of dogs that have the endurance and will to go forever and stay in top condition.
Last year, Walker had the opportunity to examine Mackey's dogs at a checkpoint, and found them to be in great shape. In fact, not only did Mackey win that race, but he also won the Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award, given to the competitive musher whose dogs vets judge to be in the best condition at the finish line.
Walker also said Mackey is a truly nice person, something I was glad to hear, because so many times, sports heroes are obnoxious in "real life."
It truly is all about knowing and caring about the dogs. Mackey said this year that a person can learn relatively quickly how to run sled dogs, but it takes a lot of years to know them enough to become competitive. He illustrated that statement by describing how he can tell if a dog has a snowball in its foot by the way its body is moving in front of the sled, even on a dark trail.
Another twist on this year's race was the revelation that Mackey had smoked pot in past races, something that is legal in Alaska with a medicinal marijuana card, to blunt the effects of his past cancer. Other mushers thought that gave him an advantage, so they prodded race officials to test for drugs. Mackey said, fine, he'd win the race without, and he did, even though he could have obtained a medical exemption.
I did some further research this year and found that Mackey's doctors told him never to race again after his cancer surgery, that it was too dangerous. He said, "Don't tell me what to do. Tell me maybe I shouldn't, but don't tell me I can't."
It's obvious to see that he has the iron will to succeed, and this year, it propelled him across the finish line once more.