‘It stings a little bit’: Lance Mackey describes life on the sidelines of Iditarod

In this trail report, we hear from two of the race's winningest mushers -- one from the sidelines, and one as he runs into the sidelines.
Published: Mar. 8, 2022 at 3:01 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - On the sidelines of the Iditarod Trail on Crystal Lake near Willow, mushers saw a familiar face, in an unfamiliar place.

“Hey, never seen you before,” shouted longtime musher Ramey Smyth jovially, after getting a high-five in motion from Lance Mackey, four-time Iditarod champion.

“No, not right here you haven’t,” Mackey called after him.

Mackey told the Iditarod Insider video crew on Sunday that it’s his first time watching the race restart from Crystal Lake, though he’s missed a few races off and on since his first cancer diagnosis in 2001.

“It stings a little bit, no doubt, but as everybody knows I have other things I’m dealing with,” Mackey said.

After that 2001 throat cancer diagnosis, Mackey was known as a survivor. He beat cancer, and hit the sled dog trail. Winning four Yukon Quests and four Iditarods, back-to-back. In 2007 he was the first musher to win both 1,000-plus mile races in the same year. Then he did it again in 2008.

Then, Mackey’s trail got a little rocky.

He faced controversy when the race introduced drug and alcohol testing for mushers along the trail in 2009. He said his open medicinal use of marijuana — related to the effects of his cancer treatments — didn’t impact his mushing success.

He took some races off in the coming years. Raynaud’s disease made it difficult to keep his hands warm. Other health ailments kept him from the start line. In 2015, two of Mackey’s dogs died during the race. Even so, he was awarded the sportsmanship award that year after helping rescue the dog team of Scott Janssen on the sea ice. In 2016, he scratched due to his own health.

He returned in 2019 and 2020, finishing both races, but was disqualified from the 2020 race, after testing positive for methamphetamine. Later that year, his partner and the mother of his two young children died in an ATV crash.

He took up a different kind of racing, car racing, and survived a crash at a Wenatchee, Washington race track in April 2021.

Then, in August 2021, he announced that he’d been diagnosed with cancer again.

“Father of two young kids, and I just couldn’t do my treatments and raise kids and train dogs,” Mackey said.

His children ran up to him during the brief interview with the Iditarod Insider crew.

“Dad, can I have some chocolate?” one asked.

Mackey said despite not being able to race, keeping dog racing in the family is important to him, and he even leased out some dogs for this year’s race.

“I have every intention of, you know, raising my kids around the event and the sport,” Mackey said.

Running dogs certainly runs in the family. Mackey’s father, Dick, won the 1978 Iditarod by a legendary one-second margin. His uncle Rick is also an Iditarod champion.

Including Lance’s four wins, he’s finished 13 times (not counting the disqualified 2020 run), and scratched twice. His brother Jason has also run the Iditarod, and his niece Brenda made a run at the 2021 race before scratching.

After Smyth, the next musher to pass by the trail on Sunday was Anna Berington.

“Hey Lance, I have something for you from my mom,” she called as her team sped by.

Mackey explained that he’s become friends with Berington’s mother. And even though Berington is married to a musher, and her twin sister Kristy also runs the race, “they tell me all the time: Three mushers in our family, and you’re still my mom’s favorite.”

The 50th running of the race highlighted what Mackey said makes the race special to him and other mushers.

“Like most everybody here, at least one to 10 days a year, we’re somebody, you know. And this event has allowed us to become somebody,” Mackey said. “If it wasn’t for dog racing and this event, we would just be people with dogs.”

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