For veteran musher Jason Mackey, a return to the Iditarod with mother and brother

Mackey is traveling the trail with multiple generations of dogs
In Iditarod 51, Jason Mackey returns to the trail
Published: Mar. 9, 2023 at 2:27 AM AKST
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MCGRATH, Alaska (KTUU) - The long road to this year’s starting chute in Iditarod 51 is just the beginning for Jason Mackey.

For longtime Iditarod fans, the familiar face returns for this year’s running of the Last Great Race; the nearly thousand-mile trek to Nome marks more than five years into Mackey’s journey of recovery, and his first go at the trail since the passing of his brother Lance in late 2022.

“That’s all I’ve ever known, literally, is the Iditarod, and dogs,” Mackey said. “It was super important for me to get my s--- together for myself, but also for the people who — you forget how many people really love you, you know? And I know, but it just reconfirmed when I left the start line.”

While Mackey has been racing sled dogs for nearly 50 years, he decided to make a life change after the 2017 edition of the race, in which he placed 21st. He sold his kennel to not only restart his team, but to “push a reset button” on his life.

The vast majority of Mackey’s dogs are new to the trail, but the Iditarod veteran comes from a long line of legendary mushers. Lance, for example, is the race’s only four-peat champion, winning four straight Iditarods from 2007 to 2010.

“I’ve been talking to him a lot this whole trip, actually,” Mackey said of his brother, who died in September. Along with some of Lance’s ashes, Mackey has his mother with him as well.

“I’ve got some of my mom with me,” he said, “but that one’s going to be hard.”

The Mackey family has more than a lifetime of Iditarod memories between them: Dick Mackey won the race in 1978. His son, Rick Mackey — a sibling of Jason’s — would go on to be the first legacy winner with a title in 1983. Then, Lance continued the winning family tradition in the early 2000′s.

“Coming into here,” Mackey said through sniffles. “It’s tough. I had a really good run over the top of Rainy Pass the other night, and left some of my brother up there. It was really a cool moment.”

The late Lance Mackey battled and beat cancer multiple times. A fan favorite throughout his career, and known for his scrappiness and relentless determination both out on the trail and in life in general, he was named the honorary musher of this year’s Iditarod in December.

“The support that I have, the support my brother has and had,” Mackey said. “It’s wonderful. It really is.”

Two of Jason Mackey’s biggest fans are now quiet supporters, with all three still sharing moments together as a family out on the trail. He carries some of the ashes of his mother and his brother with him in a safe space on his sled.

Mackey said he didn’t come in with a set plan for celebrating his brother along the trail, except that he knew he was going to do it in some capacity. Saying goodbye to his mom, however, is a different challenge.

“I’ve thought about it a few times,” Mackey said of spreading his mom’s ashes during the race. “I’ll just leave her in there; she’s along for the ride. I don’t know if I can let her go at all…”

For the brother of the man nicknamed the “Comeback Kid,” Iditarod 51 is another chance to celebrate together and feed the legacy of the Mackey family. Led by a new generation of dogs, too, the Mackeys are headed to Nome together in 2023.

“I’ll put some of (Lance) under the Arch with me when I get there,” Mackey said.

Mackey declared his 24-hour rest in McGrath on Wednesday.