‘A legend in the sport’: Remembering 2023 Iditarod Honorary Musher Lance Mackey

Remembering 2023 Iditarod Honorary Musher Lance Mackey
Published: Mar. 6, 2023 at 7:56 AM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Lance Mackey was an undisputed winner.

The face of a race and the heart of a sport, Mackey showcased one of the most dominant runs in dog mushing history with passion, resiliency and a special love for his four-legged companions.

”He was successful because he could think like a dog, he understood how a dog thought and what motivated a dog,” Bill Cotter, 20-time Iditarod finisher, said. “It was a gift.”

Mackey died last year at the age of 52. Those that knew him well told stories of an inspirational man.

“What I remember about him on the trail was whenever he was with his dogs and caressing them or loving them, he would always talk to them like they were human,” fellow Iditarod competitor Hugh Neff added. “He was just such a special, special person.”

Mackey’s reign began in 2005 with his first Yukon Quest victory. After winning the Quest again in 2006, Mackey became the first musher in history to win the 1,000-mile races of the Quest and Iditarod back-to-back in 2007.

He went back-to-back again in 2008, followed up by two more Iditarod victories to make it an Iditarod four-peat from 2007 to 2010.

And, like every great winner in sports, Mackey learned from his losses.

Following his initial diagnosis of throat cancer in 2001, Mackey went on to beat it before his historic run in the 2000s.

He survived a serious accident while legend car racing in Washington State that nearly took his life.

He stepped away from the sport to focus on rehabilitation after testing positive for methamphetamine ahead of the 2020 Iditarod.

After the cancer returned in 2021, Mackey died on Sept. 7, 2022, at the age of 52, survived by his two young children Atigun and Lozen.

Mackey was recognized by the Iditarod Trail Committee as the honorary musher for the 2023 race as the first musher out of the chute at the ceremonial start in Downtown Anchorage on Saturday.

Ahead of the bib draw on Thursday, veteran musher Jessie Holmes said he wanted like to pull number 13 in honor of Mackey, who famously wore the number during his first Iditarod victory in 2007. Instead, Holmes drew bib number 2, following behind Mackey.

“Lance deserves all the honor in the world that he gets and I am so happy that they are honoring him with that position,” Holmes said before the ceremonial start. “It is exciting to be the first musher after him and I feel like the stars are aligning right now with that. I got Lance in front of me leading me all the way to Nome this time.”

Holmes is just one of the many in the sport that holds Mackey in the highest regard.

“I think he had the right perseverance and really does embody the indomitable spirit of an Iditarod competitor, and a winning competitor at that,” Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach said following his passing in September.

“His legacy (is) to be able to inspire other mushers — and he will — to be able to still help other mushers,” longtime friend Scott Janssen said.

This is certainly the case for 2021 Iditarod Rookie of the Year Chad Stoddard, who spent several years handling dogs at Mackey’s kennel.

“Something that I guess you think of when you think of the word ‘toughness’, Lance Mackey is the image that kind of comes to mind for sure,” Stoddard said at Mackey’s celebration of life. “If you can dig out some of your inner Lance Mackey, that will definitely help you.”

Even mushers who may not have interacted with Mackey are inspired by his success and level of dog care.

“He’s a legend in the sport, he’s an incredible dog man and what he’s accomplished I don’t think will ever be accomplished (again),” said 2023 Iditarod rookie Eddie Burke Jr.

“I think he is a great dog guy, he did good for the Iditarod and all I can remember is this,” South African Iditarod rookie Gerhardt Thiart said, throwing up four of his fingers. “When he came for his number four ... that’s Lance Mackey.”

Up until his final Iditarod finish in 2019, Mackey was always a fan favorite.

”I think being given the title as the people’s champion, he just loved being with his dogs and celebrating his wins with the people. Not only in Alaska but those that followed him worldwide,” said longtime mushing and Iditarod supporter Barbara Redington.

”He was a beautiful person, he had a heart of gold and he was so approachable,” added longtime friend Jed Magby at his Celebration of Life. “People loved him because he was so approachable.”

Lance’s brother, Jason Mackey, will be running the 2023 Iditarod carrying his late brother’s ashes along the 975-mile journey to Nome that Lance loved so much.