I had a chance to visit with Lance Mackey, last year’s Quest and Iditarod champion. We discussed what he is, and isn’t changing about his team, training and race strategies. Lance fosters no illusions about how incredibly tough it would be to win either race again, however, one can’t help but sense his drive and motivation to keep the rest of the world’s elite mushers looking at the backside of his coveralls on the trail.The last time we spoke with Lance was just after he re-wrote history by winning the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod in the same season. In the aftermath, Lance has had his busiest summer since working as a commercial fisherman in Kasilof, Alaska. He has toured the country attending speaking engagements ranging from sled dog symposiums, high schools, and baseball games, to the keynote speaker at Alaska Water Wastewater Management Association meeting. But with all of these engagements taking his time, he has had in the back of his mind the changes he needs to make to this season’s race teams in order to beat last year’s times.Those changes, he says, come down to feeding and team dynamics. Like most mushers, feeding at home and feeding on the trail are different. At home, he hase the convenience of consistency of ingredients and hot water and cookers. On the trail often times foods are slightly different to accommodate for picky eaters, so more palatable, higher energy foods are fed. This though can wreak havoc with the gut. His dogs battling with diarrhea on the trail due to these inconsistencies, so he will plan ahead this time and hopefully the feeding will be kept the same, eliminating those issues. The other problems Lance would like the overcome is the team dynamics. Last season he ran his main team dogs in two to three different teams, interspersed with yearlings and older dogs. When it came time to make the racing team, he chose the best from those three teams and often times paired dogs who had never run together, causing some chaos at the starting line. “I had older dogs, who the yearlings looked up to, working with other older dogs, and there was a leadership problem. One dog thought he was the main dog in the team, but the fact was it was a team and we were all team players,” says Lance. AB: Are you planning to race to win the Iditarod and the Quest again this season, or are you planning to use the Quest as a training run for the Iditarod?LM: : I am at the point that I don’t have to enter a race to have it serve as a training run. I am a professional musher, and my job is to enter the race to win. Saying that, I don’t need to see a racing scenario ahead of time: my dogs know what racing is all about now. Going to a race is not about teaching the dogs to camp. I don’t want to have to get a real job, and doing well in these races allows me to not have to get a real job. The better I do, the more I can make out of dog sales and stud fees and make this into a legitimate business.AB: What do you feel are the best shakedown races for your season?LM: This year is a little different, I have two extra sets of hands helping me train, and they will help me get dogs experienced for next year. Braxton who has been my handler for the past couple of years has earned a race or two. We are still working with my dogs and my career here, I chose this year to have three teams in the Sheep Mountain 150, I am the 50th person on the list right now, out of 50 teams allowed. We have the first two spots on the waiting list so I am pretty confident I will have three teams. I will be able to watch over Dale and Braxton, and I am 99 percent sure I will be in front of both of them so I can keep an eye on them and somehow assist them. I might see a dog limping that they don’t see; I can help fix that. I will take two teams to the Copper Basin this season. Last year I had some issues after doing the Cantwell race where I couldn’t run the team for 10 days. Getting to Anchorage for a flight to Bethel, and then it was almost like starting all over again with that much time off. My race was basically lost from the get-go, I had to start all over again completely. I felt that all backfired last year.This year, all the puppies will go to Cantwell with my son Caine so he can do his junior run, and then myself and Braxton will go to the Copper Basin. I am currently training 52 dogs, and of those 52 dogs 40 dogs will be vying for the 30 spots on the Copper Basin teams. I am entering the Copper Basin, because there is not that much money on that race, I am less stressed and I am going to try to get 24 dogs to the finish. When I go to the Kusko, I tend to race hard and the chance of injuring dogs is high, so I wont do that again with my best team. I am not wanting to do that, I hate seeing dogs get injured. I am not pressured to do these big races. Over the past few years I have made a few bucks, I hate bills, and I pay cash for everything—car payments, phone, gas, everything. In the past I have been under pressure to do well in order to get to the next point, and now, there is still pressure, it is just not as much. I have no bills. I have money set aside. I have no house payments, my trucks are all running good. This year has been easier than it has ever been, in that department. Last year we had to cut a tree a day for firewood,.I didn’t have time during the summer to cut wood. Now I have 10 cords stacked up. We have got a water system in place, generators in place, and the dog lot is in. I have 28 veteran dogs. That is enough for a few people to run in training. I have three atvs now—that makes a huge difference. I remember last year coming home from a run and it was pitch black, and cold, I would still have to run one more team. This year, I have been able to start and finish during the warmer part of the day. I am spending a lot of my free time playing Nintendo with the kids and attending hockey games—things I never had time to do. AB: Any others?LM: After that I am planning to go back to the Tustamena 200. I haven’t been there for 3 or 4 years now and for a good reason. I had a cabin there. I trained on the race trail and I trained a lot out there. I would enter the race and it would always take me twice as long to get past the cabin turn, and the team was never the same after it. I could get them past the turn, but the team never picked up. The best I could do was 3rd. Without those issues that I had, I could have easily, in my opinion, won the race. I said I was not going to go back to the race till I had a team that hadn’t run on that trail. I now have that dog team, it is fast enough and they have never been on that trail. I am going!AB: What do you think about the new Tustamena 200 rule change?LM: I think it is kinda sad because it was what made it unique, there are quite a few 200 mile races—all with the same format—100 miles one way and 100 miles back.AB: Do you think it is hard on the dogs?LM: Absolutely. Though, my thought is that it is not as tough for the dogs being at the end of January, as opposed to the Knik 200 which is at the beginning of January. Just as an example, the Knik 200 is almost all flat, and the dogs travel at 15mph, as fast as they can go. You will not see the people doing the same style in the Tustemena because it is not safe terrain. There my be some teams feeling a little fast for a couple of hours, but I think it is doable at that time of year on that type of terrain. I am not opposed to it at all. I like that they made it an 8-hour layover instead of 6. AB: Are you racing any yearling teams?LM: Dale will be racing the yearlings. We will start with one here soon, the Solstice 100 in Two Rivers. We will take Dale to Cantwell, and maybe Don Bowers. We will only go to a race if it is to the benefit of these young dogs. One thing that is different this year is that with Dale helping all year we have been doing more runs with the yearlings. Last year when it came time to do longer runs for the Iditarod the yearlings got put away. We just didn’t have the help. Even if they didn’t go to a race, and just stayed around here all season, it will be good for them to learn more for next year. AB: Last year you had 8 dogs that finished the Iditarod out of your Quest team. Out of your team from last year is there a dog, or a new dog that is shining through? LM: Absolutely, I have a new dog shining through, Rev, a yearling. Last year he ran on my main team, and for my own satisfaction I dropped him in the Iditarod. He is now, by far, my standout favorite for this year. He has been running in lead in just about every training run this year, hard charging and just loving it. I don’t want to get too cocky about it, but I now have two of the fastest hardest driving leaders in a dog team: Hobo and Rev. They are a good combination.I had George Attla at my house, just looking around, interested in dogs. Of my whole yard, his favorite was Hobo, and then he spun around and said, “What about that one?” – he was pointing to Rev. Of 70 dogs in my kennel, George Attla picked out the two hardest driving leaders in my team. He has the eye! He went home with a dog. I called my dad and said, “Guess who was at my house?”I like my dogs to be hard driving, with the attitude that really allows the dogs to love what they are doing. Whether it is sprint or distance, we have good feeding regimes, good training plans, and we are not only trying to satisfy ourselves, but also satisfy public opinion. I don’t want to be the musher that everyone whispers about because of bad dog care, there are certainly those out there.AB: Your public appearances now have been incredible. Have they affected your training?LM: I used to have a real job in the summer; fishing or whatever. The dogs usually got sidelined. I was free-running twice a week, and running with the 4-wheeler. Then I would go away for two weeks, and a month and the dogs would get into fights and be crazy. So, yeah it kind of interfered with that, but I feel that with my success, and who I am and how I am, people wanted more of me, I guess. I think it was my obligation – I am just a normal person who had a little success in my job. I haven’t changed at all, I haven’t cut my ponytail off. I am an inspiration to some people. Usually inspirational people are well dressed, good with words and then there is me—I just think it is odd. People want to touch a champion, and see that he is still just a real normal person. I am getting invited to places that have nothing to do with our sport at all like the waste water convention. I am not sure what I have in common with them except I drink water and there is water in the villages. With the exception of one trip back East for a musher,s symposium, my job starts on September 1st. AB: Your winning both the Quest and Iditarod in the same year has spurred a few mushers who normally race the Idiatrod as their exclusive 1000 miles race, to now enter both the Quest and the Iditarod, like your neighbour Ken Anderson, and has brought back a few champions – Bill Cotter and Sonny Lindner.LM: I am not sure I had any part of that at all. I think it is great for the race. Sonny won the first race and never came back. People do things for different reasons. Most people are not in my situation with the competitive spirit and the financial burden that they have to do well. Sonny is definitely a guy who loves the sport, loves the dogs, and maybe he got burned out on the Iditarod layout. But again, Sonny is one of the few people signed up to run the Quest, the Iditarod and the Sweepstakes. I cannot speak for him, but it would seen feasible to run the Quest and Iditarod with two different teams, and then take the best of both of those for the Sweepstakes. Ken Anderson, I had almost predicted that, especially with a kennel his size. And it is great to have that number to pool from to make two teams, one for each race; unless you have the perfect situation like I had last year where I used mostly the same team for both. We trained a lot together last year. I think that training with me, and the success that I had, and him having one of the best seasons in a few years, with a few tweaks here and there he is capable of beating my team for sure. And I think he knows that. I think he knows that is beneficial to have the dogs run in the Quest before the Iditarod, as long as the Quest is not a tough situation that takes a lot out of the teams. It will be interesting to see. There is no doubt I will have some dogs carry over from the Quest to Iditarod. Every day I make a list of dogs who would be on the teams. I think the Iditarod is more stressful than the Quest, though there have been some years that is was the opposite, but mostly with more spectators, more checkpoints, more action. The Quest is more laid back too, not saying there is not the competition, but it is more laid back, and less action.AB: What distances are you training these days? Where are you training?LM: Hmm, will this be published before we start racing?Right now I am backing off a little bit on the number of runs. I run real hard in October/November. I like to do my training before I race, so when I go to Sheep Mountain in December, I will have had all of my camping training, and know what is working. If I am going too fast, that is all done back in training. I have already done as much as 60 miles in a single run, but I also do a lot of 10’s, 15’s and 20’s too. For every long run there is a short run. Right now, in early December, I am doing 40’s and 50’s, I take a look at them and if they are out and running around their circle, their attitude is good and they are chipper, or if they are holding their head low or staying lying in their dog house, that tells me what I am doing today. People ask me what I am going to do tomorrow, I don’t know, I have not got a clue until I see the dogs. I have records from the past 5 years, and I can see what the dogs have been doing, so I will probably go about 40, but maybe 20. If they are all jumping around excited to go, we are probably going 40, if some are hanging their heads low, we are probably going 20. I never have a dog team that just flat out doesn’t want to go. I am teaching them to love what they do, to see their work as fun. My dogs are never in a set pattern, so when we go to a race they never know what we are doing, whether it is 10 miles or 100 miles. End.
Dog scootering involves having your dog(s) pull you on a wheeled scooter whilst attached via