MACKEY’S DAYS AT THE TOP MAY BE NUMBERED

For a cancer survivor with back-to-back Iditarod and Yukon Quest titles and a star role in Discovery Channel’s “Iditarod: Toughest Race on Earth,” Lance Mackey has reached Iron Man status.But within the last year, the Fairbanks musher hasn’t felt so tough. His circulation is so poor his feet and fingers feel numb all the time, even in 30-degree temperatures. Imagine how his extremities will handle temperatures on the Iditarod or Quest trail, where below zero temperatures are the norm. Mackey would rather just ignore the pain, play it off as frostbite and keep driving dogs like he has for years. But the reality of it all: Mackey’s poor circulation is a side effects of radiation treatments he received in 2001 when doctors diagnosed him with squamous cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer. Reality surfaced during the 2008 Iditarod when Mackey had no feeling in his feet. He first thought it was frostbite from the 2008 Quest, in which temperatures plummeted to minus 60 and overflow caused his feet to freeze. Two weeks later on the Iditarod Trail, Mackey’s feet still felt frozen. “We was told we’d have to run through a bunch of overflow, so I wore my bunny boots,” he said. “It was a stupid decision on my part. I should have put garbage bags over my boots.”Mackey was a little frightened. He had never frozen his feet like this, so he spoke to an experienced mountain climber familiar with his symptoms.“Putting bunny boots on nearly freezes my feet in warm weather,” Mackey said.He paid the ultimate price. The numbness has never really gone away since the Iditarod and it’s become an issue. Racing year after year in frigid weather has Mackey pondering how many seasons his body can handle the pain.“If I could get five more (seasons) with my body the way it is, I think I’ll be doing good,” he said. “Mentally I’m fine. Physically I’m kind of beat up.”Mackey has spent almost every winter battling Interior Alaska’s brutally cold climate. Numb hands and fingers come with the territory. But it’s now at the point where he’s taking experimental drugs to help combat the side effects.“I don’t know if it’s going to work yet,” Mackey said. “But I’m going to try. “We gotta wait until it gets 30 below and I’m in the middle of a race to find out if it’s really working.”On a damp evening in October, his confidence in the medication wasn’t all that great. Mackey was in Anchorage to watch a sneak preview of Discovery Channel’s reality show, “Iditarod: Toughest Race on Earth,” at West High School’s auditorium. On his drive to the school, his hands looked unhealthy. “My fingers were ghost white,” Mackey said. “My feet were tingling a little bit – and I’m sitting in a heated car. It was not a positive experience.” Outside the temperature was in the low 30s.Mackey was almost too embarrassed to go inside. He’s one of the few mushers who make their living driving sled dogs. Dealing with brutal trail conditions in the Interior is part of the job description, so when a musher admits having pain in their extremities, it’s hardly their proudest moment.“It was not a positive experience,” he said.But it’s not just his hands and feet that are deteriorating. His teeth are falling out, too – another side effect of the cancer. When doctors removed Mackey’s cancerous tumor, they also took away his lymph nodes, neck muscles and saliva glands. So Mackey carries a water bottle everywhere he goes. But the water that keeps his mouth moist doesn’t always help keep his teeth healthy.“My teeth are rotten and falling out,” he said. “I’m having lots of dentistry. I have more money wrapped in my mouth this year than I have in my team.” He could just have them all yanked out and wear dentures. But Mackey still has a good jawbone, so his dentist is trying to fix the teeth that can be saved and keep them as long as possible. If he ever gets his teeth removed, it wouldn’t be the first time Mackey sacrifices comfort for the sake of his kennel. Racing dogs became difficult in 2002 when the cancerous tumor left Mackey with nerve damage in his left index finger. The pain was so unbearable he wanted the finger removed.”It was a big, throbbing pain,” said Mackey, who had it removed in December of 2005. The day he left the hospital, he ran dogs for three hours.Having nine fingers, “actually makes me excel,” he said.Originally, his doctor wanted to leave a nub at the first knuckle, but Mackey figured that would just get in the way of changing dog booties, feeding dogs and clipping harnesses. When people asked him how he will drive dogs in two of the world’s longest mushing races, he just tells them, “I’ve ran dogs with staples in my neck. It’s second nature.”When he asks himself what will happen if the side effects become too much to keep racing dogs, Mackey tells himself, “It’s getting harder as I get older and the symptoms are harder to deal with. But that’s just the way it is. It’s part of life. And I’m no exception to society.”Mackey’s plan is to race as many times as he can until his body can no longer take the physical pounding of driving a sled in sub-zero temperatures.“I don’t know what else to do that I can make a good living,” he said. “I wouldn’t be disappointed if it all ended tomorrow. I’ve accomplished the goals that I’ve set out to achieve. From here on out, it’s all added bonuses.” But Mackey’s still very driven because mushing is his full-time job. Racing is the best way he can support a family. If he doesn’t perform well, then it forces him to “get a real job,” he said.“I’m kinda used to working for myself,” he said. “I’m not punching a time clock or answering to anybody. That alone is enough drive.”This winter Mackey will have plenty of motivation to try and win his fifth straight Yukon Quest title. Among the elite mushers signed up for the Quest is Martin Buser, a four-time Iditarod champion. Mackey’s happy to have some new blood, but he’s got some advice for the Big Lake musher racing the Quest for the first time.“I think it’s great for the Quest, it’s great for our sport and I think it’s about time,” Mackey said. “But I think he’s going to be humbled a little bit. Martin’s got a beautiful team and he’s very capable of winning. But I think if he’s racing because I’ve had success then I think he’s racing for the wrong reasons.” But perhaps Buser is racing for the same reason as Mackey – earning money to support his family. Buser recently built a house with his wife with plans to turn their present house into a bed and breakfast. Keeping the dogs is an expensive business, Buser said on his Web site. Each dog costs $1.50 a day.For a 100-dog kennel, the yearly expenses would equal to $54,750. And that’s just to keep the dogs – not counting the costs to race.These days, Mackey’s financial status is better than it was nine years ago when his family – wife Tonya and their three children Amanda, Brittney and Cain – moved from Nenana to Kasilof and constructed a shelter made of two-by-fours, tarps, tents and some furniture on the beach of the Cook Inlet.“We had a $300 old Dodge truck and a piece-of-crap trailer,” Mackey said. “We looked like the Clampetts coming down the road. A mattresses was strapped to our camper.”Once the Mackeys built their shelter, Lance and Tonya woke every day to waves crashing on shore and children playing on the beach. “We had a tent as our bedroom,” Tonya said. “It was so cool. The tarp lifted for us to see the ocean.”At night, Tonya would turn on the car battery-powered television that rested on their dresser. She said it was nice not having anyone around to complain about her turning up the surround-sound speakers.”It was awesome,” Mackey said. “It was probably the closest bonding time our family has ever experienced.”But Mackey needed money, so he commercially fished with Kristina Moerlein and framed houses for her husband, Tim Moerlein, a 1985 Iditarod Rookie of the Year. Mackey said he was hired, “seeing that I’m raising three kids in a tent.” His first day framing houses, Mackey ran out of gas on the way to work. He walked to the Moerlein’s for four days until he could afford to fill up his truck.”It was classic,” he said. “A beat-up old truck and no money. I had no problem hitchhiking.”But in three months Mackey saved $1,000, enough for a down payment on a piece of Moerlein’s property a few miles inland. Mackey bought the land on a promise to work hard and take care of the land. Soon after, the Mackeys built a house from scratch, just as they did on the beach. This one had solid walls. “We hand-sawed all the trees,” Tonya said. “It was pretty Alaskan.”Year after year, the Mackeys’ financial and transportation situation upgraded one victory at a time. Two years ago, Lance gave Tonya a Dodge Ram truck, a prize for winning the Iditarod. After winning another Iditarod title last March he traded it for a Dodge sports car. His motivation for capturing a third straight Iditarod still stands at winning a new truck. “I’ve managed to make it to this level with very minimal stuff,” he said. But the one thing he can’t live without this winter – when his fingers sting, feet feel numb and teeth throb – is his physical and mental toughness.After winning his second Iditarod title, Mackey still mustered the energy to compete in Nome’s annual arm wrestling competition – and he won. Mackey is a firm believer in the phrase, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”“I’m twice as strong as I’ve ever been,” Mackey said. “I try to capitalize on the positive things. But it’s not going to get any easier.” Kevin Klott is a sports writer for the Anchorage Daily News, where he has covered the Iditarod and other sled dog races for the past five years.

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