One of those long-hidden stories known to many familiar with the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race went public Thursday when it was revealed to the world that four-time champ Lance Mackey from Fairbanks has a serious substance abuse problem.
Only this time it didn’t involve marijuana, a drug that repeatedly got the now nearly 50-year-old musher in trouble before it was legalized in Alaska, or alcohol, which Mackey used to toast the start of his 2019 Iditarod run while on the runners of a dogsled bound for Nome, or the cocaine he has admitted once went up his nose.
This time the drug was methamphetamine – or meth as it is simply known to most. Traces of the drug popped up in Mackey’s urine when he was drug tested on the trail this year.
A press release put out by the Iditarod Trail Committee after a sponsor revealed the drug test to Alaska public radio quoted a resigned dog driver admitting to an addiction.
“Some may have expected, known, or like myself, denied where I am in my life right now,” Mackey was reported to have said. “I’m tired of lying to myself, friends, family, and fans, who have all supported me, rooted for me, or been inspired by me.
“I apologize to all of you. The truth is that I need professional help with my latest life challenge. I am in the process of making arrangements to go to a treatment center where I can get the professional help and real change I need. I’m ready to confront this with all of my focus and determination.”
Those familiar with drug testing said it is clear Mackey was doing drugs during the race. Meth can be detected for up to the three days after use in most people, perhaps one or two days beyond that in chronic users.
The Mayo Clinic’s “Practical Guide for Clinicians” gives a detection time of 48 hours, but some drug testing groups say the key metabolite – amphetamine – can be found for up to a week after use.
Mackey took more than 11 days to finish the race this year. His urine sample was taken in White Mountain, the penultimate checkpoint, about 10 days into his race.
“It indicates that Lance was using meth during the race, not just beforehand,” said an experienced dog musher highly knowledgeable of drug testing. “No surprise considering that sleep deprivation is one of the greatest challenges Irod mushers must cope with.”
Meth does help keep one awake.
“During the 1940s, Nazi troops were liberally supplied with a methamphetamine called Pervitin,” notes the website Live Science. “Medical officers on both sides distributed these stimulants — and others, such as cocaine — to keep weary soldiers awake for days at a time; to enable troops to perform longer under punishing conditions….”
Mackey has always been comfortable with the idea of drug use.
He long courted an image as the Iditarod’s favorite drugs, sex and rock-and-roll outlaw. And he has a rap sheet going back to his teenage years that runs to more than 50 cases to support the image. Many of the charges involve traffic violations, but state court records also show charges related to shoplifting, forgery, drugs, drunk driving, and accusations of domestic violence.
In a late 2019 interview with the syndicated sports show “In Depth with Graham Bensinger,” Mackey confessed to having once spent $100,000 per year on drugs, booze and prostitutes.
Sitting in a folding chair and looking a lot like a doped-up Snoop Dog in a stocking hat, Mackey claimed to have once been able to “drink a bottle of whiskey every day with no problem, and then if you add X amount of cocaine, that can make you drink a lot more.”
He claimed to have once drunk two or three bottles of whiskey, taken a pocketful of drugs and nearly died, an incident which changed his life. After that, he moved to the Kenai Peninsula and started running dogs.
“How challenging has it been to stay clean?” Bensinger asked.
“I haven’t put myself in a position to really, really, ah,” Mackey said. “Well now, I’m not going to lie. I still drink but I don’t get drunk. I have a couple glasses of Crown Royale here and there….I don’t care if I ever see a line of cocaine again.”
Those who know Mackey say he did clean up his act after being diagnosed with cancer and achieving breakthrough success in the Quest in the Iditarod doing those Keni years, although he still loved to party hearty.
The serious backsliding, they said, came after he fell out of contention in the Iditarod at the start of the past decade and started sliding back in the Iditarod pack. Since his last victory in 2010, he has cracked the Iditarod top-20 only twice – his best finish being 16th in 2011.
He was 43rd in 2015 and failed to finish the 2016 race. He said then he was retiring but came back in 2019 to finish 26. He was 21st this year, but Iditarod said a disqualification for doping will wipe out that result.
“While this is a very unfortunate event, we hope this disqualification will be a turning point in spurring Lance on the trail to recovery,” Iditarod Board President Mike Mills was quoted as saying in the carefully crafted media release. “The health of Lance is our top priority. He is one of our Iditarod heros (sic) who is going through a tough time in his life. Most of us have been touched by addiction in some way, and we realize how painful it can be on friends and family and how very difficult addiction can be to overcome.”
Iditarod chief executive officer Rob Urbach was said to have chimed in with the observation that “a repeat cancer survivor, four-time Iditarod champion, and truly great dog man, Lance is about to take on another challenge, and our first concern is that he finds the support and treatment he needs to get healthy and hopefully finish his most important race.”
Alaska media have long overlooked Mackey’s messy personal life and played up his long, difficult battle with cancer along with his unprecedented, back-to-back victories in North America’s two toughest sled dog races – the Iditarod and the wilder, colder, 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada.
The Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman in 2017 anointed him as “Iron Lance.”
“…For all his triumphs, his rugged humility may be better revealed through his trials. His difficulties have only seemed to intensify his authenticity,” wrote reporter Tiffany Borges. “And they are well-documented trials — medical, financial and marital. 2015’s Iditarod was a withering affair that saw Mackey endure the death of two dogs mid-race.”
Iditarod fans have long embraced Mackey for soldiering on through all the ups and downs.
When he this year chose to ignore a request from the Iditarod to avoid doping his dogs with CBD – a pain-relieving agent with possible mood-enhancing properties – most of Alaska seemed to support his decision to stick it to Iditarod officialdom.
Many argued the chemical extracted from marijuana plants makes dogs feel better, but isn’t a drug. Iditarod rules didn’t specifically ban CBD by name, either.
But there is a blanket ban against “Performance Altering Drugs (Class I)…which attempt to directly affect the athletic performance of a dog. These include stimulants, depressants (tranquilizers), narcotics, pain medications, mood enhancers and anabolic steroids, which are prohibited substances.”
Mackey himself advertised he was using CBD because it “relieves pain, inflammation and anxiety.”
Iditarod chose not to make an issue over the drug. Mackey’s public popularity and history as a four-time champ gave him special status, and the fact he was never in contention for victory undercut the idea CBD was a drug that provided a significant performance boost.
His drinking while dog driving was similarly overlooked at the start of the 2019 Iditarod. The Anchorage Daily News, the state’s largest newspaper, captured a photo of Mackey hoisting a cold one as the race left the Willow restart although that wasn’t quite what the caption beneath photo said.
“Four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey hydrates while driving his team across Emswiler Lake,” it read.
When it was pointed out that he was hydrating with a can of TRULY Spiked & Sparkling, an alcoholic beverage produced by the Hard Seltzer Beverage Company, LLC, an affiliate of the Boston Beer Company, some were offended.
Iditarod officials ignored the incident although Iditarod rules discourage drinking and say alcohol “impairment” is prohibited during the race.
The rules define alcohol impairment as a .04 percent blood alcohol concentration(BAC). That’s half the limit for drunk driving. Moderation Management, a website that advises on alcohol impairment, suggests that it would take two 10 to 12 ounce beers of 4 to 5 percent alcohol to boost the blood-alcohol content of someone as lean as Mackey close to .04.
Truly is reported to be 5 percent alcohol. It is not known how many of the drinks Mackey consumed, but there is no indication Iditarod ever tested him.