‘I compare sled dogs to the guy that wins the Boston Marathon: he's an anorexiclooking Kenyan dude, but he kicks butt’
CHAMPION MUSHER LANCE MACKEY TALKS TO KATE FILLION ABOUT RACING 7,000 MILES A YEAR, HIS 80 DOGS, THE 11 HE LIVES WITH, AND GROUPIES
Q: In 2007, you were the first musher ever to win the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod back to back. This year, you did it again. Why did people think it wasn’t possible?
A: There’s this idea that dogs shouldn’t be capable of running a thousand miles, then taking 10 days off and running another thousand miles and being competitive. But we still don’t know what the capabilities of these dogs are, what their maximum potential is.
Q: Most people think sled dogs are huskies, but they’re not, are they?
A: No. People think of big, furry animals, but nowadays, you don’t see that postcardtype dog in a race. A sled dog is a 45to 55lb. sleek-looking thing you’d see basically on a greyhound track. They’re good eaters, but people ask me all the time if they’re underfed, because of their body structure. I compare sled dogs to the guy that wins the Boston Marathon every year: he’s an anorexic-looking Kenyan dude, you know, but he kicks butt. You’d never find a 300-lb. man out there even attempting it.
Q : A lot of people think you’re the best musher in the history of the sport. What’s left for you to achieve?
A: Well, I’d like to win the All Alaska this week. It’s the only time I’ll ever do this race— it only happens every 25 years. I’m 37 and I won’t be racing 25 years from now, I can’t see
being that rude to my body. And this is a very different kind of race: it’s 408 miles, and there’s a winner-take-all purse of $100,000much more than the Iditarod. And there are basically no rules.
Q: Also unlike the Iditarod.
A: Right. For that race, we’re allowed a maximum of 16 dogs to start, and generally finish with anywhere from eight to 14. You can leave dogs at checkpoints to be transported back to Anchorage. More dogs can mean more power, but also more work. Less is better, in my opinion. And in the Iditarod, there are mandatory rest periods: you have to have a 24-hour layover at some point, and you have eight-hour layovers on the Yukon River and at White Mountain.
Q: Jeff King was pretty much neck and neck with you this year. How did you beat him?
A: I had to pull a little something, to be honest. I kind of baited him into a checkpoint, because I knew if I stayed there, he’d stay there, and if I went to bed, he’d go to bed. That was the way it was working during the last 200 miles, he was following me around, using me to break trail. So I waited until he fell asleep, then I snuck out the door and took off. In the last 70 miles of the race, I put a gap between us that was almost impossible at that point to make up.
Q: How mad was he when he figured out what you’d done?
A: Oh, he was pissed. Pissed! And I’m sure he’s holding a grudge a little bit. But I told him flat out, “Don’t take it personal.” I’ve
got nothing against him, but we’re still competitors and you damn sure want to win.
Q: Can you make a living racing dogs?
A: This sport is crazy. There are a lot of people that have full-time jobs and do well with the race results, but still are broke. We’re considered professional athletes, but we get welfare wages compared to what we put out. I’m grateful for the sponsors I have, but they mostly give goods and services, there aren’t a lot of cash donations, so most of the expenses come out of my own pocket. People think that because I’ve had a couple years of success, I’m rich all of a sudden. But I’m raising a family and paying bills just like every other person, and I’m also doing dog racing, so I’m still just a poor white boy.
Q: It costs US$3,000just to enter the Iditarod. What do you figure your total costs are, including gear and advance-shipping food to checkpoints and so on, for that one race?
A: If you skimp, I’d say it’s US$15,000 allin, but it could be upwards of US$30,000. It just depends how comfortable you want to be out there, if you have extra sleds and clothes instead of just drying the stuff you have on. Me, I put my dogs first, because without them, I wouldn’t be where I’m at. I sacrifice up-todate clothing and gear in order to be able to feed them the best meat money can buy: lamb, beef, liver and some wild meats like beaver and moose.
Q: In fact, you got the vets’ award at the Quest this year.
A: Right, and it’s the highlight of my career so far.
A: Well, normally you don’t get it if you’re winning the race, because people think you have to push the dogs a little harder to win. Winning the race and being recognized as the person taking the best care of his dogs— that’s pretty special.
Q: Do yon see mushers mistreating their dogs?
A: I don’t think there’s a whole lot of neglect going on in a thousand mile race. You can’t make a dog do that, they have to want to. But yeah, some mushers get too wrapped up in their own personal goals and satisfaction, and forget about what the dog is actually capable of doing. Sometimes it backfires and people have to go home.
Q: What do you do when you’re not racing?
A: I used to be a commercial fisherman, I had my own boat, but I was going broke between that and racing dogs. I decided to focus solely on the dogs. So now I am, so to speak, unemployed when it comes to having a real job. But I do more races than anyone else on the circuit, about eight a year. We start training in September for the first race in mid-December, and the season ends next week. I do upwards of 6,000 or 7,000 miles a year, including training.
Q: What do your dogs do when the season ends?
A: Not a damn thing. We let them get out of shape and soak up the sun and just be lazy for a couple of months. Any kind of athlete needs recuperation time.
Q: How many dogs do you have altogether?
A: Oh, my lord. In the 80s somewhere, I’m not exactly sure because we’ve always got puppies coming and dogs going.
Q: So what does a puppy cost?
AI don’t sell many puppies.
I wait for them to be a year old before I make that decision, normally. The youngest you can race a dog is 12 to 18 months, but I have dogs on my team that are nine years old. A dog costs anywhere from a thousand dollars all the way up to five grand. It just depends on the calibre and the age. Very seldom is one for a house pet, more often than not people are looking for the bloodline to mix with their own kennel’s bloodline to make their own combination. And most of the time, the dog will make their team as well, so it’s kind of an added bonus.
Q: You must have a different relationship with your dogs than someone living in an apartment with just one.
A: Absolutely. It’s not even close, in my opinion. These dogs are my kids.
Q: I’m sure the person in the city with one dog feels the same.
A: Yeah, but their dog is probably 20 lb. overweight and locked up in a bedroom while they’re at work and only gets one walk a day. People don’t realize how much time we spend with our dogs and how good care we take of them. There are some people who have a negative outlook on this sport—they just don’t have a clue. In my opinion, locking a dog up all day and only taking it outside to pee is what’s inhumane. Of course, some dogs are more suited for city surroundings, like a chihuahua.
Q: Do you consider that a real dog, though?
A: I own a chihuahua! I have 11 house dogs of different kinds, because I love all dogs, I love the companionship.
Q: Do any sleep on your bed?
A: As many as possible! My wife loves dogs, too, this is her addiction as well.
Q: Does every kid in Alaska grow up learning to race dogs?
A: Well, I did. My dad won the Iditarod in the ’70s and my brother Rick won in the ’80s, so we’ve had some success with the sport. But there are a heck of a lot of kids in this state that don’t want nothing at all to do with it. It’s a lot of work, every day, and the expense is very much a turnoff.
Q: Do you prepare for a race with a special fitness regimen?
A: In all honesty, I don’t do anything abnormal. I don’t go to the gym and work out, or go jogging every day. I don’t eat healthy, nothing like that. Everyday activity with the dogs is enough for me. We get up in the morning and have to feed and clean and care for 80 dogs, then hook them up and run them. My average day is seven in the morning until two in the morning. So as far as extracurricular activities, there just isn’t the time.
Q:Are you thinking when you race, or is it more a physical thing where you get in a zone a?id tune out conscious thought?
A: I’m in the moment, obviously, but things will pop into your head because you’re out there so long by yourself. You have a lot of time to think, about things as far back as you can remember and way forward, into the future. I’m in the process of building a house, so I’ll be going down the trail, trying to design my house, or thinking about the things that could be going wrong at home.
Q: You’re dealing with extreme cold, hunger and sleep deprivation. How do you keep going?
A: I have a cheap little MP3 player that I listen to. When the sleep deprivation really kicks in, I turn on something obnoxious, loud, heavy metal like Metallica that I normally wouldn’t listen to, but when it’s banging in your ears you’ve basically got no option but
to stay awake. And I’m partial to junk food on the trail, Snickers bars and beef jerky. But I’m kind of a high-maintenance musher, because I had [throat] cancer a while back, and now I need water even to swallow food. At 40 below, it’s hard to keep my water bottle thawed out. So I like the checkpoints.
Q: How often when you’re racing can you actually see other teams?
A: At times, they’re either right in front or right behind, but more often than not, they’re 15 minutes away so we don’t see them though you know they’re there. I try not to run with anybody else, because that’s how we spend most of the time in training and the dogs respond to me a little better that way. And it keeps your competitors guessing. If they don’t see you, they can’t assess what’s going on, it’s kind of like chasing a ghost.
‘I don't go to the gym, I don’t eat healthy. Everyday activity with the dogs is enough for me.’
Q: Are mushers friendly at the checkpoints, or do they keep to themselves?
A: It depends on the individual. Some of my competitors are just very unpleasant to be around, so you do your best to stay away from them anyway. Myself, I interact, I talk and entertain, so to speak. It’s important to me to get the fans to like me, because without them, we wouldn’t really have a sport.
Q: Are there groupies?
A: Oh, absolutely. They fly all over and chase us around. It’s pretty cool, but I also wonder sometimes, why? Why? M
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