KENAI - Some have identified Cohoe musher Lance Mackey as having the team to beat this winter, but a recent amputation could point to an uncertain future.
"I gotta keep doing what I love, even if it means sacrificing a digit to do it," Mackey said in regard to the index finger on his left hand, which was surgically removed earlier this month.
Last season Mackey won the Yukon Quest as a rookie, then followed up the victory with an impressive seventh-place finish in the Iditarod just weeks later.
His success was in many ways a Cinderella story, since Mackey was predicted never to mush again after a battle with cancer in 2001 in which he endured major surgery that removed neck muscles, lymph nodes, his internal jugular vein and nerves.
"After my cancer surgery, the diagnosis was I'd only have 10 percent mobility in my arm. I wasn't expected to be able to ever lift it over my head again," he said.
Mushers are athletes though, and as athletic bodies tend to do, Mackey's healing and recovery were unexpected. He eventually regained almost complete mobility in his arms.
But as muscles grew larger and compensated for other removed muscles, something bad happened.
"I'm not exactly sure if it was nerve damage or what have you, but there was some kind of complication after the surgery because my finger wasn't getting proper feeling," he said.
Mackey explained that the finger would get colder than his other fingers while mushing - making it more susceptible to frostbite. It also would throb with pain, and the condition seemed to be getting progressively worse over time.
"I've had bumps and bruises my whole life and as a musher you get used to working through it, but this was extreme pain," he said.
"It got to the point it was interfering with my performance. I couldn't hook up dogs, booty their feet or do anything without pain. It finally got unbearable in the middle of the Quest, so I decided enough was enough," he added.
A few months later, Mackey began seeing doctors, who advised him of many alternatives - most of which didn't sound appealing.
"Physical therapy sounded like no guarantee. It took a lot more time and money, but it was only a 50-50 chance it would work. I could be mid-season and be in the same boat with having to have it amputated," he said.
So Mackey made the decision to have the finger removed, giving him a few months to recuperate before the peak of the racing season.
"As sick as it sounds, I was looking forward to it. The pain was so bad I was practically ready to bite it off," he said.
Mackey noted that he is right-handed, which made the decision a little easier to accept.
Since the surgery, Mackey said he has been trying to take it easy in order to let his hand heal properly, but he already is experiencing some of the challenges he will face without the finger.
"Zipping my pants, tying my shoes - little things in my daily routine that used to not take a second thought now take a second person," he said.
However, in regard to mushing he said he is not expecting to be stumped by many setbacks.
"Since the finger was basically MIA anyway, I got used to tucking it down in a glove and not using it," he said.
In fact, Mackey already is training dogs with a four-wheeler despite the recent surgery.
"I haven't discontinued running teams, I've just had to have a handler help me with hooking up the dogs, but it won't be long 'til I'm on a sled and able to pull the ice hook for myself," he said.
Mackey's first race - the Sheep Mountain 150 - is next month, and he said he will be ready to be defend his championship title for that race, as well as the Yukon Quest in February.
"By no means will not having the finger be a setback. Not having it will benefit me," he said. "That's why I did it."
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