Mackey wins third consecutive Iditarod

'The people's musher' rides in at 11:38 a.m. with both arms raised

Posted: Thursday, March 19, 2009

NOME - When Lance Mackey's father won the 1978 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, he did it with one second to spare.

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Al Grillo / The Associated Press
Al Grillo / The Associated Press

That isn't a scenario Lance Mackey ever wants to experience.

"I don't want to do that. I'd have a damn heart attack," Mackey said.

Mackey didn't have to worry. The 38-year-old son of Iditarod champion Dick Mackey crossed the finish line Wednesday in the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race hours in front of the competition, joining an elite group of only two other mushers to put together three consecutive wins.

He even had time to stop his team about a half mile outside Nome, where he went down the line, primping and thanking each of his 15 dogs before resuming the final stretch.

The crowd roared as Mackey came into view down Front Street.

About a block from the finish line, Mackey raised both arms in victory and rode that way into the chute at 11:38 a.m., hours ahead of his nearest competitors in the race.

Immediately after winning, he gave treats to his dogs, calling them the "real heroes."

"This never gets old," he said at the finish line as he hugged two of them.

Then it was time to take a phone call from Dick Mackey, who barely edged the Iditarod's only five-time champion, Rick Swenson, in a mad dash down Front Street 31 years ago.

"Pretty cool, huh," Lance Mackey told his dad.

"I did it, yeah. Did you have doubts?"

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was the next one to congratulate Mackey by phone.

"We are so proud of you, Lance, and we're considering this the greatest team in Iditarod history," Palin said.

She also told Mackey, a throat cancer survivor, "You continue to give all of us hope, the adversity that you have overcome, the challenges you've met, believe me, it resonates across our nation and across our world."

Mackey - a popular figure in Alaska now being called "the people's musher" - then thanked fans despite having slept little in the past 10 days. He accepted their congratulations and signed autographs with people lined up three-deep along the finish chute.

Mackey commended his "little superstar Maple," a 3-year-old female who was in the lead for much of the last part of the race. He hauled her and 9-year-old Larry, one of his traditional lead dogs, onto the stage with him.

Mackey became the third musher in the race's 37-year history to win in three consecutive years, joining Susan Butcher (1986-88) and Doug Swingley (1999-01).

He finished about six hours ahead of the second- and third-place mushers, Sebastian Schnuelle of Canada and John Baker of Kotzebue.

He increased his lead along the wind-swept western coast of Alaska. Fierce, biting winds blew in off the Bering Sea, forcing temperatures to 50 below zero. Many mushers waited out the storm in checkpoints.

"It is phenomenal him doing it three times," said Terry Dillon who runs a Nome store. "He had to just drive from inner strength to push to get here first."

Gwen Perkins, who came from Manchester, Vt., to watch the race, said she got a chance to talk to Mackey along the trail. What impressed her was not so much that he pushed through that horrendous weather but his warm and welcoming way with people of all ages along the trail, where children often crowded him to get autographs signed onto their parkas or across their foreheads with large felt-tip markers.

"To me that shows even greater depth of spirit, his generosity of heart," Perkins said.

In Mackey's two previous victories, he headed into the Iditarod about two weeks after winning the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, considered a tougher race.

He didn't run the Yukon Quest this year, choosing instead to train an Alaska Native musher for the Iditarod.

Sixty-seven teams began the race more than a week ago in Willow, about 50 miles north of Anchorage. Ten teams have scratched or been withdrawn.

Three dogs have died in this year's race. Two dogs were on the team of rookie Lou Packer of Wasilla, who scratched after he was found Monday 22 miles past the Iditarod checkpoint by searchers in a plane. He told the Anchorage Daily News he believes the two dogs froze to death in the brutally cold winds.

With the win, Mackey received $69,000 and a new pickup. After giving the truck from the 2007 victory to his wife and trading in last year's for a sports car, he said he's keeping the apple red pickup.

The prize money's nice, too.

"First round's on me," he jokingly told the crowd, who braved 15 below zero temperatures under brilliantly sunny noontime conditions for the finish.

After what Mackey went through this year in getting his team through a brutal wind storm, Dillon said Mackey is the epitome of the Iron Man.

"Iron Man or crazy, either one or both," he said. "Just a good old Alaska guy."

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