Iditarod champion Lance Mackey back from injury: 'We made it to McGrath, it can't be all bad'

Published: Mar. 7, 2019 at 6:23 AM AKST
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Iditarod champion and fan favorite Lance Mackey is resting for 24 hours in McGrath, proud of having made it 300 miles down the trail after injuries and illnesses put his racing career in doubt.

Mackey, who won the Iditarod four times straight between 2007 and 2011, suffered a long list of ailments including throat cancer and Raynaud's Syndrome - a condition that results in poor circulation and susceptibility to the cold.

While the mercury hovers right around freezing and most mushers strip off layers, Mackey needs to stay bundled up or risk seriously damaging his weather-beaten hands. "Most people aren't wearing mittens with three hand warmers in them - I guarantee you," he said.

The Two Rivers-based musher finished 43rd in 2015, scratched in Galena in 2016 and skipped running in 2017 and 2018. He says he isn't racing for a position in 2019 but the accomplishment and sense of pride that comes "when you achieve something that you set out to do."

"I'm maybe not as efficient as I once was, maybe not as fast as I once was, but I can still have as much fun as I once did with my dogs," he said.

In years gone by, Mackey would blow through villages in a hurry to make it to Nome. Now, he's taking more time to stop and rest and talk to the crowd of people who come out to see him.

The Iditarod veteran did have thoughts about Aliy Zirkle's decision to push onto the ghost town of Iditarod to take her 24 hour layover.

"There's always a gamble involved but if you want to compete with a field like this, you better be willing to gamble," Mackey said. Four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser made the same decision as Zirkle, driving his team to Iditarod.

In 2007, Mackey won his first Iditarod when he pushed ahead to the town that inspired the race's name to take his 24-hour layover. In 2018, Joar Leifseth Ulsom made the same move but thought it could have cost him the race when he was forced to break trail for 80 miles.

"You have to be able to do things without doubt," said Mackey, before speaking about the abilities of his dogs, "If you don't have a 100 percent confidence in what they can do, they wouldn't do it."

For 2019, Mackey has seen long stretches of soft snow but it has been a largely uneventful race. Despite the setbacks from injury, he is hopeful of finishing strong into Nome.

"We made it to McGrath, it can't be all bad," said Mackey.