Lance Mackey outdid even himself in dominating the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race for a third straight year on Tuesday.
Mackey, waving to the crowd of several hundred patient fans on a sunny but chilly afternoon, crossed the finish line near the downtown Cushman Street Bridge with 10 tireless huskies in 10 days, 2 hours, 37 minutes, more than half a day faster than a record that had stood for a dozen years.
Mackey, with trusted leader Hobo Jim and his “up-and-coming superstar sister” Lippy in lead, credited his dogs as many of them wagged their tails and happily rolled in the finish-line snow.
“I got a helluva group of dogs, they do whatever I ask ’em to do, and beg for more,” said Mackey, wearing a full-length white snowsuit over a bundle of other layers in the 20-below-zero temperature. “I’m honored to be the driver. It’s a real privilege. They did it, they’re the stars here.”
Mackey certainly did his part, toughing out temperatures that dropped to colder than 50 below on the Yukon River and several low-lying creeks. Mackey, whose throat cancer, diagnosed in 2001, is in remission, also must constantly sip water because his saliva glands were removed. His hands are continually cold and in pain because of a nerve condition.
“Right now I’ve got four hand-warmers in each glove and my fingertips are cold,” Mackey said. “I feel that those are some of the sacrifices you gotta make in this sport.”
Mackey won the Quest for the third time in three tries, joining Hans Gatt as the only other triple winner. Gatt won three straight from 2002-04.
“I’d like to be the first to win five in a row,” said Mackey, 36.
Joining Mackey at the finish line were friends and family that included his 74-year-old father Dick, who won the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1978; and brother, Rick, the 1983 Iditarod champion and 1997 Quest winner. Mackey also posed for pictures with Taiwanese tourists and a group from the Fairbanks Rescue Mission, for whom he is helping raise money.
Mackey earned $40,000 for his 10 days of toil, an increase of $10,000 from last year’s check as the Quest purse increased dramatically to $200,000.
He planned to celebrate briefly by delaying his return to his family’s new home off Old Murphy Dome Road in the hills outside Fairbanks.
“I got a hotel room,” he said with a laugh to a gaggle of media. “I’m goin’ to the hot tub and gettin’ a good meal. Nothin’ special. I got another race I gotta think about.”
That race is Alaska’s other 1,000-miler, the Iditarod, which begins March 3 in Anchorage. Mackey, who won’t use any of the dogs that ran the Quest, finished 10th in 2006.
Gatt finished runner-up for the second straight year, arriving more than 6 1/2 hours behind Mackey at 8:40 p.m. Tuesday.
Mackey left Whitehorse on Feb. 10 for the 1,000-mile journey over rugged terrain, much of it following old gold rush, mail, trade and trapping routes. He took the lead for good with a bold 99-mile run in one push from Stewart River to Dawson City, arriving at the midway point with a four-hour lead. On that run, he inserted Lippy — who replaced two-time Golden Harness Award winner Larry — as co-leader for the first time, and the speedy 5-year-old female caught on quickly, learning turn commands and how to negotiate overflow within days.
Mackey, who called his run “flawless,” was never threatened thereafter, generally only crossing paths with his competition in checkpoints as they arrived and he prepared to leave following a healthy rest.
“Even though it was a six- or eight-hour gap, it still felt like six or eight minutes, so it was never peaceful until right there on that (Chena River) corner,” said Mackey.
Mackey shattered Frank Turner’s 1995 record run of 10 days, 16 hours and 20 minutes by an astounding 13 hours and 43 minutes; part of the margin can be attributed to this year’s hard-packed trail and mostly manageable weather, but much of the credit goes to Mackey’s and his dogs’ talent and toughness.
“And I think I can do it faster,” said Mackey, who left Chena Hot Springs 80 minutes after his eight-hour mandatory layover ended early Tuesday morning, then seemed in no hurry on the homestretch. “I screwed around a little bit at Chena, and a couple other stops I could have shortened a little bit, so there is room for improvement.”
Many believed Mackey’s 2006 winning run of 10 days, 7 hours and 47 minutes was of record caliber, but it wasn’t recorded as such because that race was forced to be rerouted and shortened 40 miles due to low snow conditions.
Though he pulled off a rare three-peat, winning Tuesday was as special as his breakthrough in 2005.
“Dry my tears before everybody sees what a wimp I am,” Mackey said of his thoughts two miles from the finish. “It was an emotional moment. Coming into this race, I hoped I had the team that was to be reckoned with, but in all reality I was shooting for the top three. I was a ball of mush not too far back.”
Contact staff writer Matias Saari at email@example.com or 459-7591.