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Thu, Nov. 14

Blog: North to Alaska: Can cancer survivor win his fifth straight Iditarod Sled Dog Race?

Prescott Valley veterinarian Michael Walker and four-time Iditarod winner Lance Mackey in a checkpoint. <br>Photo courtesy Michael Walker

Prescott Valley veterinarian Michael Walker and four-time Iditarod winner Lance Mackey in a checkpoint. <br>Photo courtesy Michael Walker

The 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is one of the most grueling tests of man and beast left on the planet. In fact, rookie racers have to complete qualifying races and attend mandatory classes beforehand to help ensure their survival and that of their teams. High tech additions such as GPS, an "air force" of volunteer pilots, and state-of-the-art equipment for mushers and dogs adds to their safety, but certainly doesn't guarantee it.

Enter Lance Mackey. In 2001, doctors diagnosed him with throat cancer. Not wanting to give in to the disease, he still entered the 2002 Iditarod. He had to scratch because he became so ill, and shortly after underwent surgery. Doctors told him it was too dangerous for him to race sled dogs anymore, but it was indeed those sled dogs that gave him the inspiration to fight his way back to health. He would later say, "Don't tell me what to do. Tell me maybe I shouldn't, but don't tell me I can't." He made winning the Iditarod his ultimate goal.

In 2005 and 2006, Mackey entered the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest, and won. Then, in 2007, he attempted what many mushers considered impossible. He entered the Yukon Quest, and won. Then he regrouped his team of hardy sled dogs, and shortly thereafter won the Iditarod in the same year, again making history. In 2008, he ran and won both races again. He took off a year from the Quest in 2009, but won the Iditarod for the third straight time. Then, last year, he came in second in the Quest, and then became the first musher to win the Iditarod for four years in a row.

Veterinarians in both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod have honored Mackey for his care of his dogs, proving that he is not a "win at all costs" type of guy.

Mackey survived his battle with cancer, but not without some serious side effects. His body has trouble making saliva, so he carries water bottles with him at all times, a real feat in the often below freezing temperatures of the Iditarod trail. His circulation is compromised, so he is more susceptible to frostbite. His knees are shot, he lost a finger to nerve damage, and he has shoulder problems. But Lance Mackey has amazing mental toughness that seems to propel him through every obstacle that comes his way.

While rules governing the care of the sled dogs on the trail are stringent - vets check them before the race, at many checkpoints during, and after - the mushers are pretty much on their own. And, mushers are not allowed to have any help caring for their dogs. When they come into a checkpoint, they have to spread straw, heat water, feed the dogs, and do any doctoring that is necessary, before they can grab some food and a couple hours sleep.

Prescott Valley veterinarian Michael Walker has volunteered for the Iditarod for the past six years, and he's headed back for a seventh in March. He has in the past admired both the condition of Mackey's dogs and Mackey's personable demeanor. I'll be interested to hear this year if he again comes into contact with Mackey or his dogs.

Mackey has written a wonderful book, The Lance Mackey Story, in which he says, "For the future, I'd like to be the first musher to win four Iditarods in a row (he did). But I've had that incredible feeling of winning, and if it's someone else's turn, so be it. I will be the first to congratulate him or her, because I know what it takes to have a team of that caliber. I will be just as happy arriving 21st with a team of good looking, healthy dogs."

I'm betting on Mackey not only finishing this year, but finishing well.

The 2011 Iditarod begins on March 5. If you want the whole experience from the (warm) comfort of your easy chair, check out the Iditarod Insider online. For about $30, you can follow the mushers throughout the race on GPS, see online video updates, maps, and stories. It keeps me awake at all hours for about 9 days each March!

And if you love a good, inspirational read, get The Lance Mackey Story. I've listed some websites below so you can prepare for this year's Iditarod experience!

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