Former Kasilof musher Lance Mackey’s first-place finish in this year’s Iditarod Sled Dog Race did more than earn him a $70,000 paycheck and a new truck, it also proved a lot.
To begin, Mackey’s victory proved the power of thinking outside the box. While others, like Jeff King, Martin Buser and Doug Swingley, set out to basically expand upon what Rick Swenson already had done win five Iditarods Mackey set out to implement a paradigm shift. Of course, he didn’t use these terms, but his idea was the same. He wanted to forge his own path to not only do something no one had ever done, but something most believed could never be done, in order to change the way people thought about the sport of long-distance dog racing. Mackey set out to win the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod in the same year.
Only three people have ever won both races, those being Joe Runyan, Jeff King and Rick Mackey (Lance’s brother), but none of them had made competitive attempts at both races in the same year. Many said it couldn’t be done. Even after Mackey followed up two consecutive victories in the Quest by breaking the top 10 barrier in the Iditarod two years in a row, people were still telling him it couldn’t be done.
“I thrive on underestimation,” he said from under the burled arch in Nome on Tuesday after proving race pundits and many of his mushing peers wrong.
This is a powerfully accurate statement for Mackey to make because of how frequently he has been underestimated over the years. Many mistakenly believed because Mackey was born and raised in Alaska, never attended college and until the last few years lived a largely hand-to-mouth existence, he somehow lacked the experience, knowledge and means to be taken seriously in distance racing.
However, as Mackey has shown with his recent winning streak, he is, in fact, quite brilliant in regard to training sled dogs and racing them, in particular.
While covering mushing over the years, I have seen a lot of mushers with college educations or with more years racing experience under their belt not just be beaten by Mackey, but be beaten because they were outsmarted by him.
I also have seen a lot of people who had, at the time, better dogs than Mackey lose to him for the same reason. The reason why is Mackey is extremely clever. He may not know who the current governor is, but when it comes to dog racing, as he stated after his victory “It’s our lifestyle. It’s what we breathe, eat and sleep. It’s what we do.”
Also, Mackey’s victory was unique beyond being an unprecedented achievement, because while it showed his ability to gauge when to stray from convention, it showed he knew when to stick to traditional methods, too. Some mushers built hyperbolic oxygen tents for their dogs to sleep in and devised swanky techniques to swim them during the summer. Many others, attempting not to be left out of the trend, used sit-down sled technology during the race.
Not Mackey. He used the tried-and-true method of conditioning dogs by running them the way he always has in front of a four-wheeler in fall and a sled in winter, and rather than riding along or sitting down sleeping while his dogs did the work, Mackey kicked and pedaled with his team nearly the whole way.
Sometimes the old ways are the best ways when it comes to preserving the essence of something like mushing. Perhaps those looking for the most technologically advanced method for getting to Nome should sign up for the Iron Dog.
Lastly, Mackey’s win was significant because he is a people’s champion, a living rags-to-riches story. Until this past season, he struggled to survive financially. Mackey had a kennel one-third to one-half the size of some past Iditarod champions, had marginal winter gear for himself despite mushing in minus-40 temperatures, and never had a reliable dog truck to get to races. But it didn’t hold him back. He still somehow managed to prevail over other competitors whose financial means far exceeded his own.
Mackey is a people’s champion because he is real, genuine and a total original, as he proved this season. Too many mushers, in an attempt to appease corporate sponsors or appeal to the widest possible spectrum of fans, only offer canned insincere quotes to the media. Not Mackey.
Like country icon Waylon Jennings, who he bares a striking resemblance to, Mackey is an outlaw who says what he means and means what he says, whether other mushers, the media or fans like it. He defies convention and, in doing so, brings some much-needed fresh air to the winner’s circle.
So congratulations Lance Mackey. Not only for what you’ve done for yourself, but for all you’ve done for the sport of mushing.
Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Clarion. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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