Kasilof musher Lance Mackey is back again, stiff from being days away from a good meal, hot shower and restful night sleep in his own bed. But he is steadfast in his determination and, as usual, many eyes are watching his every move.
Rather than being on the runners of his sled in the blowing snow of a dog race, though, Mackey is living in his camper-topped pickup truck in an asphalt parking lot in Wasilla, where he is under surveillance from Iditarod Trail Committee personnel.
He is attempting to be the first musher to sign up for next year’s Iditarod, which doesn’t begin until the first weekend in March 2007, 256 days from now.
“I wanted to be sure I got bib number 13, because I’m putting my heart and soul into this year’s Iditarod,” he said.
Rather than randomly drawing starting numbers, a new twist on Iditarod regulations began last year. Mushers now pick their own starting numbers depending on the order they arrive and officially sign in at Iditarod Trail Committee Headquarters in Wasilla.
Arriving early for the sign-up increases the odds of a musher getting their favorite number or one with special meaning to them, which Mackey said was the reason for his early appearance.
“My dad (Dick) and my brother (Rick) both won this race on their sixth attempt, both wearing bib number 13. This is my sixth Iditarod and so I wanted bib 13, too. I’ve got to give it a chance,” he said.
Pundits have stated that while Mackey’s back-to-back wins in the 2005 and 2006 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, followed by his top 10 finishes in Iditarod both years (seventh and 10th, respectively) have proven he has the dog driving skills to win the 1,000-plus mile race to Nome, he may not be able to do so if he continues to run both long-distances races in the same year.
Mackey said his critics’ doubt fuels his fire.
“That’s why I want to do it,” he said. “I thrive on underestimation. People are always saying you can do this or that. They said no one could win the Quest and crack top 10 in Iditarod in the same year, and I’ve done it twice in a row.
“I believe both races can be won in the same year and I’m confident I have the team and ability to do it, so barring any unforeseen disasters, my goal now is to prove it,” Mackey said.
To secure his opportunity to be the first musher to pick his starting number in this year’s race, Mackey must remain at Iditarod headquarters in Wasilla until the official sign-up begins Saturday.
“If he stays here until then he gets to hold on to that spot. If he leaves, he loses it, so he’s camped out in the parking lot,” said Chas St. George
St. George added that, while Mackey is the first and currently only musher there, he expected other early birds to show up through the week, as well as a mass of dog trucks to arrive Friday evening.
The earlier a musher arrives, the better chance they have of securing a starting place that may serve as an advantage in the race, such as going out earlier in the day on fresh trail and with fewer teams to pass; or going out later in the evening when the temperature is cooler and more comfortable for the dogs to run in.
And what if Mackey isn’t successful at being the first under the Burled Arch in Nome in 2007? He said he will be disappointed, but not dissuaded.
“Whether it’s this year or not, I’ll keep trying until I do it,” he said.
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