There’s book smarts and horse sense. There’s head knowledge and heart knowledge. There’s left brain and right brain. There’s analytical, calculated race planning and perfect execution on the trail, and then there’s Lance Mackey.Planning is critical to success, it lays a foundation for a good race, but the best mushers, such as Mackey, have a way of tapping into something bigger, rising above the man-made barrier of schedules and routines. Mackey personifies a special kind of inspiration that seemingly comes out of nowhere—those who hear it still must have the guts to act on it—and which separates winners from the rest of the field in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Mackey, whose background is as checkered as a finish-line flag, the son of 1978 champ Dick Mackey, has notched a race first: He is the only musher to win four Iditarods in a row. He got back into dogs about a decade ago while broke, used his intuition to build a kennel out of the best dogs within his reach, overcame cancer, and since has come into nirvana-like contact with the source of… uh, dog sense. Take this winter, for example.As the racing season took shape this year, Mackey ran into setbacks, which is nothing new for him. This year, the troubles included a public debate over marijuana use among mushers, pressures from his own notoriety after winning three Iditarods, the retirement of trusted lead dog Larry and others, and the additional burden of fielding a second team for Jamaican musher Newton Marshall. By the time Mackey entered the Yukon Quest, his tone was decidedly humble and realistic. He had more banged up dogs than usual and untested dogs. But he piloted that younger dog team like a master, running and resting the early part of the Quest without breaking out any wild moves until just before the halfway point. After the 36-hour layover, he asked the world out of his dogs as the final 450 miles from Dawson to Whitehorse opened up into a fast, fast trail. Hans Gatt had the faster team, made great moves, and won, but Mackey saw something important in his own dogs. He vocalized that observation halfway through the Iditarod, as all the evidence indicated that Jeff King was about to put away the competition along the Yukon River.“This team has plenty of fight,” Mackey said in Ruby. “I have 12 dogs here who would walk to the end of the earth for me, nonstop.” He knew it. And they did it.It took a day or two to put it into action, however. Bitterly cold weather forced mushers to go checkpoint to checkpoint along the breezy, 50-below Yukon, as he, Hugh Neff and Mitch Seavey chased King by shaving their rest here and there, and Gatt kept pace by running faster but religiously keeping his rests no shorter than four hours. Then Mackey found a keyhole of hope.There’s always a physical turning point in the Iditarod, a spot on the trail where you could paint an X, where it becomes obvious that a gutsy move has taken place that could be the game winner. This year, that place was Kaltag. All of the front-runners rolled out of Nulato, taking a shade under five hours to make it to Kaltag. King pulled over for another short, follow-if-you-dare catnap, but when Mackey pulled in, he later told reporters he had a plan brewing to blow through, and the sight of the leading team camped there lit a fuse under him.At the time, Mackey’s team didn’t look like it was the one to pull off a victory, the champion said. The race appeared to be King’s or Gatt’s at that point, he said. “I wanted to spoil Jeff’s fun a little bit and take one of the awards,” Mackey said. “It worked.”Mackey kept going, past Tripod Flats cabin, past Old Woman cabin, and, some 19 hours after departing Nulato, he finally pulled the dogs over for a nap. When dogs are trained right, and conditioned to run at a slower pace, pretty much all they need at this point is a little time off their feet, according to Ken Anderson, who pulled off a similar move to surge into fourth place in the final standings.“Dogs get to this point where metabolically, they’re eating everything and holding their weight,” Anderson said. “All they really need is a little bit of shuteye, just mentally, just because they need sleep; they don’t need it for their bodies.” They get to that point by being ultra-conditioned; for example, by first running the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest. A Quest team that enters the Iditarod is always a little slower, but they tend to eat like pigs and have the capacity to trot along seemingly forever.Mackey not only seized the award for being first to the coast, he suddenly had a little leverage: A team willing to walk to the ends of the earth driven by a musher willing to do just what it takes to widen his lead. Mackey did it by resting a half hour or so less than King between Unalakleet and Koyuk, and took no rest at Elim. By that point, their run times were about the same. But Mackey kept padding his lead with the shorter rests.“ I capitalized on an hour and a half lead (at Unalakleet),” Mackey told reporters at the finish. “I just had to maintain it. At the time, I had the same speed as Jeff but was losing ground to Hans. I just had to stay focused and not be discouraged by my team running a little slower.” Then, he added that his team was eating well. And as long as they do that, they can keep moving.If Mackey once again found away to rise above the routine, so did Anderson, with success.Anderson relied on pure inspiration as he made his way off the Yukon. It resulted in a first-ever move that observers raved about as a stroke of genius but that Anderson has downplayed as making the best of a situation, playing his cards right and getting lucky. It is something he said he probably would not attempt again.Like Mackey, Anderson pulled out of Nulato realizing he had to pull something rash to move up in the standings. His pre-race plan had been shot down in flames. He had intended to run from Ruby to Kaltag in two legs, camping at Bishop’s Rock, but the cold had pinned him into a checkpoint-to-checkpoint routine. Anderson was driving another team of Quest-hardened veterans that ate like there was no tomorrow and jogged along at a steady pace. That left one option: Go long. He reached Kaltag at 7 p.m., which is the best time to get moving, not pull over. So, on they went.But what next? Stopping at Tripod Flats would only be like a delayed version of Kaltag, strategy-wise. He’d still have a longish run to Unalakleet, where he’d have to take a break. Too tired to think past the next campout, he kept the team going to Old Woman, arriving about 2 a.m. – perfect time to shut down. “I’d wing it after that,” he said.After a five hour rest at that cabin, Anderson then faced the next decision: Stop at Unalkleet? Not if he wanted to leap-frog into the top five. He denied the temptation to rest at Unalkleet when he got there at about 9 a.m. He loaded his sled with food (but not straw) and kept going, figuring they would go on to Shaktoolik after a five-hour run to Unalakleet. But by 1 p.m., his dogs were slowing to a walk in the heat of the day, even with the winds that were whipping up.That’s where inspiration slapped him upside the head. “I got to the top of this hill, and found this nice quiet spot on a hillside that had a really good slope to it. It was protected there, and it looked really inviting. I stopped, pulled off to the side, and (the dogs) dug down into the tundra, and they just went right to sleep,” Anderson said. Two Bureau of Land Management officers on snowmobiles pulled up from Shaktoolik. “They said, ‘You’ve camped in the only calm spot between here and Shaktoolik. You got lucky.’ The dogs just roasted in the sun.” If he had kept going to Shaktoolik, it would been a 12 hour run, through the heat of the day no less. And what then? He would have faced a short rest at Shaktoolik before the mental grind of crossing the sea ice to Koyuk, if he wanted to keep up. As it worked out, the unplanned, sunny nap in the Nulato Hills did wonders for his crew, allowing them to blow through Shaktoolik and post a relatively fast run time into Koyuk, catapulting Anderson into fourth place.“I didn’t premeditate that,” he said. “That’s the big secret. I didn’t know I was going to pull over on the hillside until two seconds before I did it. I was vegging on the runners, crawling along, and it dawned on me how stupid it was what I was doing: pushing dogs through the heat of the day when they really wanted to be resting.”“It just made sense at the time. I was reading my dogs, and reading the situation,” Anderson said.“It was an epiphany.”Notes:This was one of the “fastest” races in Iditarod history, but individual run times were ordinary to agonizingly slow. The difference, obviously, is the willingness these days to run longer and rest shorter, and to do it in a way that wins. Martin Buser still claims the fastest ever race, at 8 days, 22 hours, 46 minutes and 2 seconds, set in 2002—back when equal-run, equal-rest was the mantra, and teams moved at a faster clip because of it. Mackey’s pace this year was close, though: 8 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes, and 9 seconds. Make of it what you will.Takotna seems to be the checkpoint to take your 24-hour layover, until somebody figures out a way to do it elsewhere and win. Maybe it is the right place to rest after running a team fairly hard for about 300 miles, just when they are tired but not too tired. Maybe it is the sunny, southern-facing slope of the hill, where dogs can sprawl out and recharge. Maybe it is the 24/7 pies, steaks and burgers for mushers. But there was a huge time advantage for the front-runners who stopped at Takotna. King and the others gained several hours on John Baker, chiefly, who was just about leading the race at that point. I’m not talking about Baker’s unplanned five-hour rest just outside Cripple; his run time alone was significantly slower. True, teams reported having faster run times down to Ruby coming off their 24s at Cripple. But, for some reason, the tactic that once created a platform for Buser, Team Norway and Doug Swingley to launch to victories hasn’t been working of late.Kudos to John Baker for recovering from a deficit of several hours and roaring back to a 5th place finish. There were lots of success stories, some that probably went under-reported or unreported. Good job to Ray Redington Jr. for a strong 11th place finish. And to King for running another impeccable race, mixing incredible preparation with a solid team and balancing it all with high standards in dog care. Gatt ran an incredible race, having won the Quest decisively and to be bearing down on Mackey at the finish was impressive. •Jon Little is a veteran distance musher with multiple Iditarods and Quests. He blogged this year’s race at: by staring at a 13-inch laptop screen at his kitchen table instead of being up the trail in person to catch the nuances, and facts, for that matter.


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