Lance Mackey, the four-time winner of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race who lived his life fast and loose and broke rules both written and unwritten, is dead at the age of 52.
Mitch Seavey from Sterling was a year older when he claimed the second of his three Iditarod victories in 2013. Along the way to that win, Seavey parlayed his first Iditarod successes into what is arguably the most successful sled-dog tourism business in Alaska: Ididaride Sled Dog Tours.
Mackey never found much financial success. He was always struggling to make ends meet.
When friend Kristen Ballard set up a FundRazr for him in 2015, she described a “mountain of debt” due in large part to medical expenses that followed a bout with throat cancer shortly before he became famous in 2007 for back-to-back victories in the arduous, 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race in the frozen heart of the north between Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada and the Iditarod.
He subsequently became an Alaska hero thanks to the string of Iditarod victories that followed and an affable, easy-going style linked in part to the fact he was often stoned. And Seavey was, well, just Seavey.
How much of Mackey’s story to tell honestly in light of his passing is hard to know given an image defined by a media that loves to create heroes and villains.
Mackey was lucky to be beatified as the former because it could easily have gone the other way.
Instead, the portrait that got painted was of a down-on-his-luck Alaskan living virtually homeless in a tent on the Kenai Peninsula with his family who battled with and overcame throat cancer before bonding with a unique group of canines to set the Alaska sled-dog racing world on fire.
A family mushing history only added to the aura. His father, Dick, won the Iditarod’s only photo-finish in 1978, and his half-brother, Rick, in 1983 brought to an end the reign of Rick Swenson, for a time the king of the Iditarod Trail.
Swenson had won four of the previous six runnings of the race, and some thought it should have been five. Swenson actually beat Dick Mackey across the finish line in Nome in ’78, but the race marshall gave the race to Mackey because his lead dog had been first across the line.
Swenson did not protest, but the ruling, which set a precedent, was odd in that sled-dog competitions start with the dog sled – not the lead dog – on the start line. Declaring the race over when the lead dog’s nose crosses the finish would seem to leave a race a dog team short of complete.
But all of this history just sort of added to the Mackey family lore which played to Lance’s advantage as his story went the opposite direction of that of Joe Hazelwood, whose death was also reported by mainstream media this week.
Twists of fate
Hazelwood was the captain of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker and in his cabin aboard the ship when third mate Gregory Cousins ran it aground on Bligh Reef to cause what became at the time the largest oil spill in North American history up to that time. Hazelwood, who was known to have had a drinking problem, was reported to have been drinking before the ship left the Port of Valdez and went to his cabin as the crude-filled vessel was sailing through Valdez Narrows toward Prince William Sound.
He eventually became the chief villain in the story of the spill even though an Alaska jury in 1990 found him not guilty of the charges of being the cause of the spill by being drunk and reckless, and the Alaska Court of Appeals two years later overturned the one crime of which he had been convicted: negligent discharge of oil.
It didn’t matter. He spent the rest of his life pigeonholed as the drunk skipper who smeared Alaska beaches with almost 11 million gallons of crude.
“‘I have no idea why my name has persisted,’ Mr. Hazelwood told The Times in 1999. ‘Do you know the name of the captain of the Titanic? Maybe my name rolls off the tongue better than Smith, who was the captain of the Titanic. Demonizing me works for people. It’s an easy way to personalize this catastrophe.'”
Sometimes the way the media defines people lasts almost forever.
Once the youngest mariner to reach captain status in the Exxon fleet and later an instructor at the State University of New York Maritime College, Hazelwood will probably be remembered forever as the drunk skipper responsible for an Alaska disaster.
And Lance Mackey will be remembered as a hero of the Iditarod though his life could have taken a Hazelwood turn and left him remembered as a worthless stoner if he was remembered at all. He got lucky in that he discovered a unique ability to bond with and then get the maximum performance out of sled dogs and parlayed it into stardom in the Super Bowl of Alaska sports.
Things didn’t start out this way. Lance was only 18 when he first visited the Alaska State Court system in 1988 to face theft and forgery charges.
He would spend a lot of time in court in the years that followed, though he was usually there with issues some might consider less significant: Issues with unpaid debts, an accusation of domestic violence during one of his divorces, a request from another soon-to-be ex-wife for a civil protective order, and drug charges involving his regular use of marijuana long before the drug became publicly legal in the 49th state.
Thanks to his status, the media largely ignored all money and family problems. And his marijuana use was taken lightly in a state headed toward the eventual legalization of the drug. Less so his disqualification from the 2020 Iditarod after drug testing found he’d been using methamphetamine.
Meth was the drug that powered the Nazi war machine during World War II with German researchers reporting that it allowed blitzkrieging soldiers to press on day after day with little need for sleep. A drug that permits this is a big advantage in the Iditarod where the biggest challenge dog drivers face is sleep deprivation.
After the meth showed up in Lance’s blood, he confessed to a drug problem and said he would seek treatment, which was a shift from his earlier position that he’d only been using drugs to self-medicate because of the pain caused by his cancer.
The reality was that he’d been smoking dope since long before the cancer, and there are reasons to believe those two things might have been related. Researchers at the UCLA School of Public Health in 2000 reported finding a strong link between smoking dope and cancers of the throat and head.
Pot smokers were 2.6 times more at risk for head and neck cancers than their non-pot-smoking counterparts, WebMD reported at the time, and Dr. Zuo-Feng Zhang,at UCLA told the website that “if they used more than one [marijuana cigarette] a day, the risk jumped to 4.9 times more than someone who never smoked.”
That, coupled with the connection between alcohol and throat cancer, might have caused some to change their ways after a first go around with disease, but Lance was a party animal to the core. It was part of what made him so lovable to so many Alaskans and left some other Iditarod mushers wondering what kind of image the race was presenting when Lance rose to dominance as the 2000s were drawing to a close.
Iditarod management, always looking for a saleable element, was quick to brand Lance as a lovable, rebel outlaw who conquered cancer, and that was that.
The truth lived somewhere in the gray where it often does. One Fairbanks resident describes the local hero as a screw-up in most aspects of life, but really, really good at dog mushing. Fellow mushers generally managed to ignore the former and admire the latter.
Fans who knew little about racing largely just embraced the myth of the personable everyman beating the whitebread technocrats who’d come to dominate Iditarod – Swiss-trained Martin Buser, the cerebral son of a surgeon; college-educated businessman and farmer Doug Swingely, who didn’t even live in Alaska; mad scientist Jeff King who counted among his inventions an “altitude barn” for his dogs that mimicked the “altitude tents” professional human athletes had been using for years to boost red blood cells and improve endurance, and Robert Sorlie from Norway, a country that somehow manages to dominate winter sports of all sorts.
Buser, King, Swingley and Sorlie were button-down mushers who scientifically pursued the sport and still do. Lance was the free spirit who followed his instincts.
His crowning achievement, the one that vaulted him to stardom in Alaska, came in 2007 when he broke an unwritten rule of long-distance sled dog racing, the one that said it was impossible for a musher to be competitive in the arduous, 1,000-mile-long Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race through the frozen heart of the north from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada in February and then return to the trails less than a month later with enough gas left in man and dogs to challenge in the 1,000-mile Iditarod.
The thinking operated on two levels – one being that the long-haired dogs that succeeded in the bitterly cold, slower-paced Quest just couldn’t compete with the houndish, short-haired huskies then winning the Iditarod, the other focused on the reality that 2,000 miles of racing – not just running, but racing – was too big an ask for man and beast.
Others had run the two races back-to-back before Lance, but their entries were considered more publicity stunts than anything else – manly shows that it could be done – or competitive failures. Canadian Hans Gatt was a dominant force in the Quest at the start of the 2000s and won it in 2002, 2003, and 2004.
After the 2002 Quest victory, he ran Iditarod and finished a disappointing 23rd. He didn’t return to the self-labeled “Last Great Race” until 2005 and then showed up with an entirely different dog team than he’d raced in the Quest, and no expectation of challenging then-defending champ Seavey.
“Obviously I’m not trying to run the Iditarod competitively,” he told the Whitehorse Star that year. “But I’m trying to build up an Iditarod team for the future. That’s why I’m taking those young dogs out there just to give them the experience….”
Gatt believed that if he was ever going to win the Iditarod, he needed an Iditarod team because, of course, winning the Quest and the Iditarod with the same dog team was impossible, and especially impossible in the same year.
Then along came Lance, whose Quest and Iditarod teams were both powered to victory by the same core group of eight dogs to prove the impossible was possible.
Many thought the back-to-back victories a fluke. Some were sure Lance would be an Iditarod one-of like his half-brother or his dad, who won the race on the judge’s decision in ’78, and in the years to follow was always in the top-10, but never again finished higher than sixth.
Success and controversy
Lance, on the other hand, successfully defended his first championship and then brought the string to three in a row, which spawned a controversy about the use of marijuana during the race.
Lance had, unfortunately, made the mistake of telling a few other mushers that he believed the drug helped him function better when forced to go days with little sleep on the trail, and given that a big part of the human challenge in the Iditarod is sleep deprivation, some suddenly saw marijuana as a PED, ie. a performance-enhancing drug.
Science to back up the idea of marijuana as a PED was scant in the early 2000s, but there is some now. A peer-reviewed study published in BMJ Journals in 2021 reported that regular users of marijuana functioned on less sleep than non-users, and “heavy users were even more likely to be at the extremes of nightly sleep duration.”
Heavy use was defined as using marijuana 20 or more days a month. The study warned that the “increasing prevalence of both cannabis use and sleep deprivation in the (U.S.) population is a potential cause for concern…(given) insufficient sleep in the modern world is a growing public health issue.”
A drug that causes people to find less need for sleep might be a public health issue nationally, but for a musher in the Iditarod being able to function on less sleep is a big plus. A recent study looking at upper respiratory infections in mushers found Iditarod competitors averaging only 3.9 hours of sleep per day, and “mushers that finished within one day from the winner averaged less than two hours of sleep per day.”
That study also noted that recent discoveries “that individuals can develop resilience to subjective fatiguing when sleeping less than four hours per night during the work week and then sleeping eight hours per night on the weekend to catch up. With findings like these, mushers may consider incorporating ‘sleep training’ in the months leading up to the race to mimic sleep patterns experienced during the race. However, on a note of caution, the authors of this (recent) study emphasized that this form of sleep restriction could come at a cost to long-term health.”
But if long-term health is not one’s concern and if marijuana helps suppress the urge to sleep….
When the Iditarod decided to begin drug testing mushers in 2009, Lance was the only top contender to push back. He argued the rule was mainly aimed at stopping him from achieving an unprecedented fourth-straight victory.
By then, Lance also had a medical marijuana prescription allowing him to legally use the drug. Alaska wouldn’t fully legalize marijuana use until 2015.
Stan Hooley, the Iditarod’s executive director in 2010, told the Columbus Dispatch that testing mushers for drugs had been discussed for years, but added, according to that report, “that it would be difficult to deny (Lance) Mackey’s contention that he is being singled out for his acknowledged pot use and that other mushers have complained about it.
“‘The reality of it is he’s won the race three times and people would like to figure out a way to beat him,’ Hooley said.”
Lance was at the time facing misdemeanor charges of possession of marijuana after Anchorage airport police caught him with the drug and an expired medical marijuana card. Court records reflect that he eventually offered a plea of guilty and was fined $2,000.
Hooley’s comments appeared directed at supporting a race favorite in a state where public sentiment appeared to indicate most people agreed with Lance’s belief that the drug rule was being pushed by jealous competitors who mainly wanted to handicap him.
Lance went on to win the 2010 Iditarod and claim he’d done it marijuana free. Race officials reported shortly after the race that test results found the top-40 mushers clean. Some mushers were skeptical. Forty-six days after the race ended, race officials issued another statement saying their drug testing had caught two back-of-the-pack dopers, but no action would be taken against them.
Iditarod drug testing has always been suspect. The race tested dogs for decades without reporting a single case of doping – neither greyhound racing, horse racing or any form of serious human-endurance sport has gone that long without catching a doper – and when Iditarod finally did report discovering doped dogs in the team of former Iditarod champ Dallas Seavey, Mitch’s son, the race cleared him of the charge after he staged a huge and very public protest.
There was no investigation leading up to that decision. No evidence has ever emerged to indicate that anyone other than Seavey or a member of his team doped the dogs. The Iditarod simply cleared the musher solely on the basis of his claim that he didn’t do it and someone must have sabotaged his team.
The younger Seavey had become, by then, a fan favorite just like Lance, the hero who lost his life to cancer the same way the villain Hazelwood did though Hazelwood’s death was said to be compounded by Covid-19. Some people seem to be just born unlucky.
Lance is now being widely mourned in the 49th state. He livened up a competition that happens out of sight and now stars not-so-real reality TV stars. Lance had an earthiness and honesty about him, good or bad, that made him real. He will be missed.
And Hazelwood? He will live forever in infamy because the misfits under his command ran an oil tanker into a well-marked and well-known reef.
CORRECTION: The original version of this story reported the wrong date for the death of Joe Hazelwood. He died on July 22, but his death went largely unreported until September when the New York Times ran an obituary. Stories quickly followed in other mainstream media.