Families of mushers cheer from home

Posted: Friday, March 12, 2004

Between their sponsors, friends and legions of adoring fans, Kenai Peninsula mushers competing in this year's Iditarod have a lot of people cheering them on, but none more so than their families.

"With all the stress and how crazy it is the weeks before they leave, I start to be like 'Just go already,' but then as soon as he's gone I start to miss him," said Tonya Mackey, wife of Kasilof musher Lance Mackey.

After seeing Lance off from the start of the race in Willow, she returned home to keep up with the kids and the household responsibilities, and to help their handler take care of the 25 dogs and numerous puppies that didn't go to Nome. But when she's not doing that, she's glued to her computer.

"I've been checking the Internet about 30 times a day to find out the latest standings," she said. "The Iditarod site went down for a while earlier in the week and that was really frustrating, but now it's back up, so I'm back on there."

Despite what many people assume, the spouses and family members of those in the Iditarod often don't know much more about what's happening during the race than anyone else. As such, "Idita-wives," like Tonya, often get information about their husbands from second-hand sources. A good example is when one of Lance's 5-year old dogs, "Wolf," died suddenly just a few days ago.

"I first heard about it from a friend who heard it on the radio," Tonya said. She said she was crushed when she learned the news.

"We're bonded to those dogs like they're our kids, so it's not easy to hear," she said.

Iditarod race officials have since announced via a press release Thursday morning that after having performed a necropsy on the dog, "There was no evidence of negligence or abuse, and Lance and his team (have) been allowed to continue to Nome."

Much like Tonya, Lisa Mackey -- wife of Kasilof musher Jason Mackey -- has been closely following her husband's progress in this, his rookie year, in The Last Great Race.

"I take my laptop to work every day to check on him, and Tonya and I are talking constantly. We call each other every 15 minutes," Lisa said.

Despite this being her husband's first running in the Iditarod, Lisa said she's not too worried about Jason because she's got faith in his dog-driving skills.

"He's a good musher and he'll have a good run," she said. "He's been waiting his whole life for this, so I'm sure he's out there enjoying it. It's really good to see him fulfilling his dreams."

Lisa added that it's been exciting for her and the rest of the family to to track Jason's progress on the trail.

"His oldest son comes home from school every day with a printout of the race results off the computer, and we've been cutting out every article from the newspaper and are making a scrapbook for him," she said.

The families of every musher would like to see them win the Iditarod, but only a few can realistically believe it. Janine Seavey -- wife of Seward musher Mitch Seavey -- is one of those few this year.

"I absolutely think he has as good a chance as anyone else to win this race," she said. "He's trained very hard for this and he's got a strong team that's moving fast."

Going into the Cripple checkpoint for his 24-hour rest, Mitch was one of the front runners of the race, along with Martin Buser, Jeff King and John Baker.

"He's doing very well and is sticking to his schedule," said Janine.

In an interview just a few weeks ago, Mitch said this may be his year to win. He made several changes in his feeding and training regime this past season and was eager to see if his team would be for the better.

"It's good to see it all paying off," said Janine, who thinks the effects have been, and will continue to be, positive. She added she's looking forward to seeing who gets to Ruby first.

For the next couple of days Janine said she will monitor Mitch's progress and try to get the household back to normal.

"We get so busy with packing and planning the weeks before he leaves that we fall behind on things. So for the family, we'll just use this time to relax and catch up," she said.

Evy Gebhardt, wife of Kasilof musher Paul Gebhardt, said she's been busy, busy, busy while her husband has been gone.

"I've been working. When he's gone I do the chores for all the dogs," she said.

She added, "I also send out a daily update every morning by e-mail and fax. It goes to all of our sponsors, friends, people who have visited the kennel and other acquaintances that are interested in following him during the race."

She does this by keeping up-to-date with the latest race standings posted on the Internet, and Paul has managed to call three times with updates from Nikolai, McGrath and Takotna.

During one call he shared a tale of high adventure.

In the dark just outside of Rohn, his team came to a sudden stop. In the dim glow of his headlight, Paul said he could see a fresh moose carcass.

"He was in such heavy timber that he couldn't go around it. He had to drive right over it," said Evy.

Seconds after running it over, his team came to an abrupt stop again, but this time when he shined his headlight up the trail there were eyes looking back at him -- more than one pair, too.

"He looked up and saw a pack of wolves," Evy said. "He said the hair on the back of his neck stood up and so he gave the call and got them out of there as fast as he could."

Other than that close call, Evy said her husband's run this year has been good by all accounts.

"He sounds real upbeat when I talk to him and he said he's having a good time and is pleased with the team's performance."

Evy, as well as Janine Seavey and her children, and Tonya and Lisa Mackey and their children, will travel to Nome early next week to see their husbands cross under the famous "Burled Arch" that marks the official finish of the race. All four women said they are very excited to see how the mushers do in the final race standings.

"My daughter will be on dog duty then, while I get my little vacation for the year," Evy added.

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