For Kasilof musher Lance Mackey, competing in the Iditarod isn't just about coming in first or collecting prize money, it's the realization of a lifelong dream to make it to Nome.
Mackey, 31, is the son of 1978 Iditarod winner Rick Mackey and brother of 1983 Iditarod winner Rick Mackey. Lance grew up racing sled dogs and developed a knack for turning other people's unwanted dogs into winners. He competed in the Junior Iditarod before leaving the sport for nine years to pursue commercial fishing.
Four years ago, Lance, his wife, Tonya, and their two daughters, Amanda, 13, and Brittney, 10, moved to Kasilof, and Lance got back into the sport he loves. He acquired a few dogs from area mushers, like Tim Osmar, and started building his team. Now, Comeback Kennels, Mackey's dog yard, is up to more than 40 yearling dogs, and Mackey is well on his way to continuing his family's winning Iditarod tradition.
Mackey finished a respectable 36th in his inaugural Iditarod run last year. He and his dogs both gained experience on the trail that will contribute to their efforts this year.
"I would love to finish in the top 20 this year," he said. "But realistically, I'm shooting for the top 30. I took my time last year and finished only six away."
Though Mackey raced a young team, the dogs more than proved themselves on the trail. His time from Safety to Nome, for instance, was 3 hours, 6 minutes -- the same time in which winner Doug Swingley and third-place Jeff King finished.
"I was smiling from ear to ear, knowing that I had the same time as Swingley and King," he said. "There's a lot more satisfying things than winning or even placing in the top 10. I just wanted to finish, have fun and have healthy dogs when I got to Nome."
Comeback Kennels is a fitting name for Mackey -- a man who returned to the sport after nearly a decade hiatus and who had to overcome a serious illness to be able to compete this year.
Though Mackey didn't know it at the time, he ran the 2001 Iditarod afflicted with throat cancer. He was diagnosed soon after finishing the race and underwent extensive surgery and radiation treatment over the summer.
Although his illness left him with limited mobility in his right arm and other physical challenges to overcome, Mackey has not let it deter him from mushing.
"I'm not going to let this little detour screw up my life forever," he said. "I just had a bad summer, that's how I see it. ... I'm stubborn, I'm not going to give up. Mentally I'm as strong as anybody and stronger than most. What I can't do physically I make up for mentally."
After a year of training and rehabilitation, Mackey is eager to run Iditarod 30 -- so eager that he was the fourth musher to sign up.
"He sure has everybody's best wishes and prayers," said perennial front-runner and 2002 contender Mitch Seavey of Seward. "He's a real inspiration. Just being on the trail is a remarkable accomplishment."
Mackey raises and trains all of his dogs personally, so he is intimately familiar with their abilities and personalities. The dogs were bred for strength rather than speed and weigh between 60 to 75 pounds each.
"They don't always necessarily have to be really fast, but they have to get up and go when you want them to," Mackey said. "I like them tough, mentally, more than speed. They're bred for power, but strong dogs can move fast, too. When the trail is soft and crappy you can still move."
The condition of his dogs is of utmost importance to Mackey while on the trail.
"They're all very fat and very spoiled." he said. "I just want to have fun and them to be healthy. I would rather come across the finish line with them happy and healthy than first. Once the leaders get hooked up, everybody goes nuts. I feel good about that because I know they're happy about running. Mine run because they want to, not from fear. Mine want to go; they love to go."
The strength of Mackey's team has been noticed by other mushers as well. Kasilof musher Jon Little, a veteran of three Iditarods who raced against Mackey in the Tustumena 200 in January, noted that Mackey's team still "looked really sharp" at the Lost Creek Lodge checkpoint, 127 miles into the race.
"I think he's got a hot team," Little said.
Whether he achieves his goal of entering the top 20 this year, Mackey is sure to gain even more experience that will help him achieve his goal of joining his father and brother in the ranks of Iditarod champions.
Both Mackey's father and brother won the Iditarod on their sixth run, and both wearing bib 13.
"I don't think it should take me six years," Mackey said last month. "I know I am capable of training the dogs. I've got the determination and the knowledge, and I know I can win. I just need time.
"By the time my sixth year comes along, guys better be noticing it -- especially if I draw 13."
Peninsula Clarion reporters Will Morrow and Mark Kelsey contributed to this story.
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