Sporting record falls to a cancer survivor

Army Staff Sgt. Harry Alexie of the Alaska Arm...
Lance Mackey  Wikipedia

Dog sledder Penny Evans reports on

‘A record falls overnight …

whilst pink bootees push double mastectomy musher over finish line…’

Last night, 16th March 2010, in one of the smallest cities in the world and half way round the planet from the UK, Lance Mackey quietly emerged off the sea ice of the Bering Straits and entered the history books.

His arrival in Main Street Nome was greeted with thunderous applause from the spectators and his adoring fans.  Their darling driver with his team of sled dogs had won the 1,000 mile Iditarod Race from Anchorage for the record-breaking fourth consecutive time, in a total of 8 days, 23 hours and 58 minutes.

30 year old Lance Mackey comes from a famous family of “mushers” …. his father Dick Mackey was a founder of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, known as one of the Greatest Races on Earth, and actually won the race in 1978 by one second over Rick Swenson.

Lance’s half-brother, another  Rick, won in 1983.  Incredibly, all three ran under the Bib number 13 and won on their sixth attempt.  In 2010 Lance once again proved his ability to not only manage and drive his team through some of the toughest of terrain, but also that strategy plays a huge part in this test of human and canine strength.  His fans may adore him and though popular with his fellow competitors, so many times Lance has outwitted them on the trails.   Lance’s wife Tonya is also a musher, and with their four children run their Comeback Kennel in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Long distance sled dog racing is not, however, the only adversity that Lance Mackey has faced in his life.  Diagnosed with throat cancer in 2001 he refused to give in and continued his sled dog racing, even entering the 2002 Iditarod race. Although now considered cancer-free he still needs constant supplies of water for his throat – not an easy feat out on the trail in minus 60 temperatures.  Also, after nerve damage caused by an operation to remove a cancerous tumour, he chose to have the finger surgically removed rather than continue in unbearable pain.

But that’s the facts …. what about the man ?  I met him in that same street in Nome Alaska in 2008.  Lance had already won both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod in that year and had just finished 3rd in the the 408 mile race from Nome to Candle and back to commemorate the centenary of the All Alaska Sweepstakes Race – the first sled dog race in the world. It was four o’clock in the morning, minus 30 degrees but this meeting is a memory I shall never forget, such is his charisma.

So what makes him the darling of the sled dog world ? This unassuming man is the most generous person you can imagine – the David Beckham of the Sled Dog Racers – a gentleman and a wonderful ambassador of the sport.  At the finish line when you would imagine a bath and a bed were the only things on his mind, he stopped and talked to everyone.  We were lucky enough to be introduced to him as “his No.1 Fans from Europe” … at that time not a great accomplishment as we were the ONLY Europeans who had travelled to watch the race.  He happily chatted about our dogs – we also own sled dogs and race and show them in the UK – had his photograph taken with us and even gave us one of his dog boots.  Okay, okay, perhaps a sweaty dog boot that has covered 408 miles is not perhaps what everyone would want, but one of Lance’s .. well that’s different, trust me !

Books could be written on the accomplishments of Lance Mackey and there is not enough room in this article to list his achievements both with his dogs and in his personal life, but I think it best to leave it to Lance for the final quote.  On the finish line yesterday in Nome, he said “I like the number five as much as I  like revelling in being the first in Iditarod history to win four in a row” …    So watch out for next year …

Later, double mastectomy breast cancer survivor, Dee Dee Jonrowe, has arrived at the finish, “tired, but her dogs are fine”.  This of course was comment from another friend – a musher of course!

Dee Dee has come in 22nd – out of a field of 71 starters, now whittled down to 56 and dropping. So 2/3rds of her rivals haven’t even reached the last but one check-point.

Dee Dee had 2,000 pairs of pink bootees made for her team of dogs;  she is a breast cancer survivor, and this was her way of celebrating and raising funds.

The team wearing their pink boots

And the dogs will now be trying to bite off those pink bootees.  Not because they are macho and don’t like the colour, but sled dogs just don’t like boots – full stop.  Made of Teflon or other almost indestructible materials, the moment mushers put them on, the dogs  are biting away trying to tear them off.  But they are necessary, because trails such as the Iditarod soon ice up, meaning there are sharp ice crystals all along the way, that tear dogs’ paws.  And even made of the material they are, they don’t last more than a stage at a time – hence the need for 2,000 for Dee Dee’s 16-dog team.

The first Briton – sorry Scot, to make it home,  at 45th, was rookie Wattie McDonald, born and raised in Scotland.  “I began with our first Siberian husky in 1999 and quickly became addicted to sled dog racing. After dreaming of Iditarod for many years, Wendy and I decided t o celebrate 25 years of wedded bliss by watching the start of the 2008 Iditarod, and from that day, Iditarod became a ‘must’ for me”.

He trains in Fetteresso Forest,  and is a member of the Scottish Siberian Club, and was racing to support CLIC Sargent.  A Rookie is a first-time Iditarod racer, and surprisingly Wattie arrived home with all of his 16 dogs.  Most racers will have ‘dropped’ dogs along the way (they are extremely well looked after, fear not) either for health reasons, or because the dogs get too tired.  But Wattie has carefully nursed his team right until the finish – the only one to arrive with all of his at the finish this year. Some mushers were down to 8 dogs – perilously close to the cut off, as the race rules say you have to have a minimum of 6 dogs at the end, or you are disqualified.

We don’t know yet if Wattie crossed the finish line in his trade-mark Kilt – with temperatures well under freezing (minus 40 most of the nights) one thinks not!  If you want to donate to CLIC Sargent click on to www.wattiesgreatrace.com.

Lance’s website: http://www.mackeyscomebackkennel.com

Race reports:  http://after-cancer.com/cancer-news-latest/iditarod-toughest-race-on-earth/

Iditarod official site:   www.iditarod.com

UK Siberian Husky Club (they also have details of races in Britain) :  www.siberianhuskyclub.com

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