Down and out

lance mackey 2009

Lance Mackey in the good times at the start of the 2009 Iditarod/Wikimedia Commons

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.

Bad boy

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.”

Golden boy

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.






8 replies »

  1. Lance took it too far this time. The Iditarod is supposed to be about racing canine athletes that are deeply cared for. Not the case with Lance this year. His dogs were under the “care” of a methhead. Inexcusable. Lance should be banned from the Iditarod for life.

    • James, So here is an interesting take on the subject. I was on the trail and repeatedly saw lance doing amazing amazing care of his dogs , first noticing it all the way back at Nicololai . Constant massage , foot ointments all over their bodies . Checking ,touching giving this snack and that snack or a massage ,and the dogs were so happy and in tune with him . They never looked tired and i wished mine were as joyous as his. He was as attentive as any musher ive seen except Jessie royer . At the time i was somewhat jealous because i was so tired and thought where is he finding the energy to do such obsessive care . Care often equates to performance later in the race and the dogs appreciate every moment of it . I take care of the dogs like my life depends on it . Care is everything . Lance was just unbelievably attentive and the dogs felt it , visibly. Now whats Interesting is he fell asleep at shacktoolik . In a warm wood fired cabin. The only decent place to sleep in 1,000 miles . Not kidding. If was the only place that gave me a siren call. I only slept inside a building once in the whole race . On my 24 hour at takotna. Every where else i just threw down some straw and put on my jacket . No sleeping bag or anything. Well lance answered the sirens call at shacktoolik , falling into a deep slumber on a bench by a glorious wood fire . It knocked him out of contention to Finnish in the top 20 Teams came and went . His dogs frolicked happily on their straw out of the wind . I thought, wow his team looks amazing! Should i wake him up ? Get him going? Hes worked so hard to get to this position. Yet he sedmed so content to slumber. Instead i was to self absorbed with packing for the challenge of crossing norton sound and pushed the altruistic thoughts out of my mind to focus on my own event . I still feel guilt because its such a bad feeling when a person over sleeps and gets behind. I dont wish that feeling on anyone. Much less someone whos worked so hard to get where he had . Anyway the point is his dogs looked amazing the picture of their happy tails and faces is forever seared in my memory at shacktoolik against the backdrop of that old windbeaten coastal cabin and i never once saw him slouch in the effort of dog care or get overly obsessed with competition and forget he was being pulled by his best friends. That said i am 110% against any form of drugs in man or dogs and I consider it a travesty he took that route. I truly feel dismayed such a thing occurred. Hopefully he gets full treatment.

      • Ramey, I commented on what I think about doping & drug use in sport on another post of Craig`s so no need to again here. What I also feel, and you draw a clear reason why, is that we…or our sport, should be taking a far closer look at how we have allowed LD racing to evolve to a point where sleep…or lack of it…has become such a significant, and for some, overwhelming element in determining the success or failure of a race. Its not a fun strategy to have to engage in for musher or for dogs not to mention the ethical questions it leads to and watching sleep deprived dogs at times race only their ability to stay awake is no fun for anyone, to do or to watch. If racing is to have a future, it needs some radical changes in the structures of events. It may not completely wash out the dopers, but it may reduce the incidence of it & them and would for sure make for a better quality sport.

  2. There are some that are still making excuses and defending Mackey. If you like the guy then that is ok, but don’t deny the truth. There are plenty of nice people out there that do wrong, even continue to do wrong, it’s ok to acknowledge it, and still like them.

    Not that this pertains to Mackey, because I don’t know the guy, but it brought an instant to mind..
    I still shake my head about the one time when a friend of mines neighbor was coming out of another out of state neighbors driveway with a load of junk in a trailer behind their ATV. They waved at us as we went by like the friendliest people you ever met, while they were hauling off/thieving the out of state neighbors belongings. Quite disturbing…

  3. Why does America long for heroes and leaders?
    Is it the demagogue culture that we are spoon fed since birth?
    It seems like Americans (and corporations) need “experts” to place on a pedestal above the “common man”.
    We are seeing this today with the “fear porn” delivered daily by MSM and stressing our nation.
    Do not listen to your “gut” but wait for “experts” to tell you when it is “safe”.
    Too many of these media imposed demigods turn out to be nothing of the sort.
    We have seen this first hand with the Catholic church and all the abuse delivered by the hands of men in gowns who prayed upon our youth.
    Now we have a medical czar in each state telling us we must wear a mask and cannot go near friends nor can many of us return to work?
    When will the demigod culture cease to exist?
    How many Mackeys need to fail their piss test before we see that guys like Lance Armstrong, and Barry Bonds are all on drugs?
    How many times would Dallas’s dogs need to test positive for Tramadol till we will consider that he probably is giving it to them?
    I look at my country and see a culture that is lost and misguided from reality…I feel for what Lance is going through yet I wonder if anyone will learn anything from this or there will just be a new person to take his place in the media spotlight?
    Then there are his dogs left on their chains who will wonder where Lance has gone?

    • Steve.

      It’s a world of a lot of non thinkers. It is way easier to sway someone of what you want them to be swayed of if they will not think on their own. It is also a way of alleviating ones self of having to exert any energy into being independent minded, and such. So, I feel it’s a choice made by some.

      Franchises annoy me mostly, because it is the true sign of abundant non-individuality, and non-creativeness. Cookie cutter society following into someone elses foot steps instead of blazing your own trail, whether by sporting, mom and pop businesses, or anything else in your life.

    • 🙄 we are all humans, every one of us – the fault then lies with those who thought somehow Lance Armstrong or Barry Bonds were any more special/immune/godlike than themselves.

  4. You can look at some people, just like some things, and it can just be assumed you’d be right.

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