#Iditarod should retire bib 13 in honor of Lance Mackey. #uglydogs

Episode Transcript

Today is a show that was difficult to make. It is a tribute show to the legendary Lance Mackey, who passed away after a long battle with cancer. As fans know, Lance is a four-time winner of both the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest. On this show, Toni and I welcome back long-time co-host Alex Stein and we each share stories and memories of our time with Lance.

Robert: Joining me from Kenai, Alaska is Toni Reitter, and from LA is our friend Alex Stein. He’s back on Mushing Radio. Toni, welcome to the show what’s happening?

Toni: Well, it’s not my favorite podcast. I’m gonna say that out loud. Right at the beginning, because we are. We’re talking about a really sad thing as I’m sure most of our listeners know by now. Lance Mackey four-time Iditarod and Yukon Quest champion passed away from a year-long battle with cancer on September 7, he passed away late that night and so we’ve been watching all weekend as tributes from all over the world from mushers fans, and everything in between. Have come pouring in. I say a year-long battle with cancer. We know that you know, of course, he’s battled cancer before, but he said in an interview back in August that this cancer was different than the throat cancer that he fought back in the early 2000s. So it’s not something that I’ve put in, you know, dealt with myself. I’ve just been kind of looking at it from a news angle.

Robert: So Tony, before we hear your tribute to your stories about Lance, can you give us the cliff notes version of who Lance Mackey is what he was all about? What he met to you and the sport. All of us. You, Alex and I have followed this sport for a long time. So we know the Lance Mackey story and the impact he had on this sport, but tell us about his little biography. If you will, and sort of how he affected the sport for you.

Toni: So Lance is part of the Iditarod dynasty. His dad Dick Mackey helped Joe Redington start the race back in the 70s. He was one of the ones that sat there next, Joe Redington Yeah, that sounds like a really great idea. So Lance grew up with Joe Redington being Uncle Joe. Lance watched his dad won the Iditarod with the closest finish of just one second between he and second place. Rick Swenson, and then he watched his older brother, Rick Mackey, when in the 80s and so it just became this sort of thing.

Dogs were a part of Lance’s life. Even before he was born. He was riding on the back of the dog sled in his mother’s womb, as she was training dogs with with Dick so it’s just in his blood. He’s known as the dog whisperer. And, you know, he had a rocky, rough, rocky upbringing. His parents divorced when he was very young. He had a rocky relationship with his dad. You know, he had to go out and find themselves and be rebellious like most Alaskan teenagers, especially of that generation, and he came back to dogs in the mid to late 90s. He actually moved down here to the peninsula with his wife and Step-kids and they homesteaded out and can see loss. He got back into dogs. I think he said in his documentary, The Great Alone that before they even really had a roof over their heads. He was collecting dogs that nobody else wanted and he formed his little candle and his team and just as he was really starting to get momentum in racing, he was diagnosed with throat cancer.

He was supposed to not make it out of that alive and he did he actually ran. I believe it was his first I did arrive that he ran that he found out right afterwards that he had cancer. He ran the next year with a feeding tube inserted in his stomach and ran I did run which just shows you the tenacity and the don’t tell Lance what to do and he’ll just do whatever he wants. And he puts his mind to it. And then just a few years later, I believe that was 2003. So I think just what, four or five years later he won the first of his four consecutive I did arrive after already winning the Yukon Quest a couple of times ahead of that. He’s the first musher to prove that you can win I did right and the 1000 mile Yukon Quest race in the same year. He did that two times in a row. Finished up his reign as champion as Iditarod in 2010. And, and yeah, it kind of brings us to today he’s had he had a rocky go health wise, after he he stopped winning his his chemotherapy, the radiation all of that kind of caught up to him and his neuropathy was so bad that he could he was having trouble keeping his fingers from freezing and so that definitely slowed down his momentum of championship but it didn’t slow down his driver his love for the dogs the race. You know the history. He’s very proud. He was very proud. See, it’s hard to even talk about him in the past tense. He was very, very proud of his family, his legacy within the sport. 

I think more so than even how proud he was. of his own legacy within the sport that far surpasses his dad or or any other family member and will never see another musher accomplish what he did, especially now that the Yukon Quest. No longer is that 1000 mile race to have a team of dogs within the span of a month when 2000 mile races are close. 2000 mile races is something that we’ll never see again. And so he is considered not only a legend of the sport in the race, but considered one of the best if not the best dog musher at least in Alaska,

Robert: Toni, over the past couple of years, we’ve approached this show from three different perspectives, especially when you Alex and I have been on together and you’re approaching it from sort of a volunteer perspective volunteer and Iditarod and of course you grew up with the race with your your dad and your family being a part of the race from a very early age for you. Can you tell us a story or two or maybe an interaction that you had with Lance or maybe some favorite moments? That you had following him during your lifetime?

Lance playing pool with his son

Toni: Yeah, but it’s not really with dinner. I mean, I do have stories, but I think one of the most, the one that keeps coming to mind over this last few days after finding out that he’s had his young, youngest son, when I don’t even remember how young the kiddo was. He may have been two, but it’s the final Tustumena 200. We were sitting there in the roadhouse that was being used as a checkpoint and you could tell Lance was be you know, he’d been running dogs outside in the cold all day, and it’s a checkpoint you’re supposed to get the dogs bedded down, rested and maybe catch a few zz’s and mushers can sleep through anything but his young son was not ready to sleep. Dad was in the room so he wanted dad’s attention. And so it’s just that that picture that I have, he wanted to play pool as much as a toddler can with his dad and so they’re there at the pool table in the roadhouse playing pool. And that’s just a memory that, you know, Lance was yes, Lance was a fantastic dog musher and he was Dog Whisperer but you know, I everything I’ve heard, and, and the little that I’ve seen is he really did want to be a really good death for his kids. 

He didn’t have the best relationship growing up with his father and I really did feel that he wanted to break that cycle and change some things and he definitely from the few interactions I got to see up close with his two youngest kids. I think he was trying and doing his best and you know, it’s it’s such a loss for them. They’ve already lost their mom and now they’ve lost their dad and you know, my that’s that’s where my thoughts have been the last few days. Is I know that they’ve got good family support with aunts and uncles and cousins and more aunts and uncles, but just the loss of both parents is just so hard. So that’s the first one that comes to mind.

Lance was such a calm musher

And then also, I think, especially our listeners who are a part of the ugly dog faction of  Twitter, they’ll remember in 2019 there was a big crash on our corner at the ceremonial start of Iditarod arrive there by the native hospital and we had to my volunteers actually had to stop Lance Mackey’s team from continuing on because the crash involved two or three different teams ahead of him. And just about the time we got those going, we had another team pass him because they didn’t listen to us and they started down and they crashed just as we left last, continue on. And so here’s another pile up of dogs and everything. 

There’s no room for Lance’s team, and yet he was able to lead his team through all of the down sleds, the tangled dogs, making sure not to run over the crowd, which was pretty big at that point because Lance Mackey was coming and I think that’s another memory that I’ll remember not only from my angle of watching the whole thing unfold and just being completely stressed out as the area coordinator but also hearing the entire crowd just gasp and watch him just quietly move through this chaos with like, I mean, I felt like his body language was just a giant shrug like yeah, no big deal when you’re done that, whatever. And, but just hearing that collective gap and then everyone just breaking out into a chair. It was electrifying. And that’s that’s kind of sums up Lance Mackey. I mean, he just that energy you couldn’t not feel it and be a part of it.

Robert: Toni, thank you for sharing and we’re welcoming back. My co host for many years Alex Stein. He and I started this I did a rod coverage together way back I think 2010 or so. He took a year hiatus as he got back into the swing of things with COVID but he is back for for tonight. Alex, welcome back to the show. I wish it was on better circumstances, but I know that you were a big time Lance Mackey fan and I wanted to have you on to say what was on your mind and and sort of this tribute show to Lance Mackey.

Alex: Yeah, and it’s really good to be back here. And as you said, I wish it were not under these circumstances. But when I first started really getting into being a big, big fan of mushing and I did a ride in particular, was when Lance was just completely and totally dominant. And there have been people who would mushers who had run both the Yukon Quest and I get here out in the same year before, but usually they would do that with two completely or almost completely separate teams of dogs. And that’s because the Quest ends and then I think Iditarod around starts like two weeks later or something like that. And Lance had noticed that when he was running his dogs either in Iditarod or on the Yukon Quest that he felt like they were really stride in the last part of the race, like the last 150, 200 miles. 

Lance Mackey was on a whole other level

They were performing at a level that was just so much higher than what they had been at the beginning. And he was the first one who who noticed and we take this for granted now. That at the end of the race the one thing that that almost every measure will tell you is yeah, my dogs want to keep going. They could go they could go another 150, 200, 300 miles. And at the time when he wanted to run the Quest, and Iditarod together in the same year and do that in a really competitive way. People thought that was crazy. People thought it you know, that’s something that couldn’t be done, which ironically, is sort of what a lot of people said when when the Iditarod race was was launched in in the 70s.

Lance was almost telepathic 

 So that’s that’s one thing about Lance he he had this like telepathic ability to communicate with his dogs, he, he famously would would spend nights out in the dog yard sleeping with among his dogs, and just seem to know them better would, you know, like, would know what the slightest movement of an ear meant for all of his dogs? And that’s that’s kind of an astonishing thing. I think I joke that sometimes he thought that he was part dog. And I don’t think that’s that’s a huge exaggeration.

Lance riding on one runner

There was a great story that Jeff King told to Alaska Public Media, after Lance passed and he was talking about in the first year that Lance won, he was having, he was having difficulties with his sled, and he and he broke his right runner. And so he was basically riding on one runner, and the other side were his right foot would go was was just not there. So it was just like riding on this one runner. And he came into Rainy Pass and and was hoping that he could that he could get a sled that somebody would lend him a sled and someone offered him a sled but said oh well you have to you have to pay for it. And Lance was, you know, Lance was Lance and Lance frequently was flat broke and thought no, that’s not worth it. So he just kept going with this sled that only had one runner down the Dalziel Gorge which is, as you know, fans of this show know, is one of the most difficult parts of it to ride even even for veterans, even for people who have two good runners. And he just went down there with with one runner, and then took that sled with only one working runner all the way to Nikolai where he had another sled that he could get and switch out and that was the first year that he won.

The Magic of Number 13

There was something almost magical about Lance and one one thing that that longtime fans may know is that when Mackey won Iditarod. It was his sixth race. And he was wearing bib number 13. And when Lance’s brother Rick won, it was also his sixth race and he was also wearing did 13 And what the first year that Lance won, Iditarod, it was his sixth race, and he drew bib number 13. 

So there was almost something that that seemed like it was, it was totally meant to be. I think I would recommend very, very highly, that people who were interested in Lance watch or rewatch the documentary The Great Alone, which is just really fantastic its on Amazon Prime and I think it’s streaming on a bunch of other platforms as well. But it’s just a great look at Lance and I loved watching Lance in the in the late 2000s when he and Jeff King had their rivalry and you know, famously, Lance snuck into a checkpoint where Jeff was was asleep and Lance pretended he was going to sleep and and then snuck out while Jeff was sleeping and went on to win the race. And like seeing the two of them snipe at each other in the press was just was just so enjoyable. The one the one strong personal story that I have about Lance and I met Lance a bunch of times, but I wasn’t really friends with him.

I saw a screening of The Great Alone Lance and and Greg  we’re doing sort of a road trip thing where they were screening at at various festivals around the country. And I went to a screening in LA and if you’ve seen it from people have seen the movie Lance is very honest, like sometimes almost painfully honest about some of his problems and particularly his his kind of strained relationship with his father Dick Mackey. And he talked a lot about about Coldfoot Alaska, which is where there’s a little truckstop and Dick Mackey owns that for a while. And he you know, Lance spent some summers there and spent a lot of time there. And after the after the screening, I went up to him, and I said I have something to tell you that I don’t think anyone has ever told you before any gave me this look, and I could tell that the look meant I’ve heard people say that to me 1000 times and usually they say something dumb that everyone says to me like I went on a sled and and so what I told Lance is that and this is true that my wife and I were married in Coldfoot, Alaska, at the bar by the bartender, and when I said that to Lance, he just beamed he he was so happy. 

And we talked a little bit about Coldfoot and then he shook my hand and he said, I can’t wait until I go back to the hotel, because I’m going to call my dad and tell him about this and he’s going to get the biggest kick out of this. And it made me so happy that Lance had repaired or was in the process of repairing his relationship with his dad. It also made me really happy towards the towards the end of his life that he seemed to have found a great deal of happiness that wasn’t entirely relying on dogs. Like he he got a big kick out of racing stock cars and and raising his two young kids. And he just seemed like he was coming to peace with the fact that he wouldn’t be he wouldn’t be a dog musher forever. And you know, for people who for people have seen Lance are seen Lance in person. He always was someone who was who was who did not look strong. He was extremely strong and had a mental toughness. That is that is you know, hard to even conceive of. But he he looked like you could tell he’d been weakened by the cancer. He’d been weakened by all of these treatments. And I think in I had a long thread about this on Twitter and I won’t I won’t reiterate all of that. But in in the show I’ve I’ve tried to, over the years steer clear of, of talking too much about some of the challenges that Lance faced and he had he had addiction issues. He had some some issues with the law specially when he was younger and issues with with relationships and things like that. And I kind of steered clear of that because there were people who were picking on Lance and I didn’t want to feel like I was piling on. But I’ve come to realize that part of what I admire about Lance the most unlike Toni I still am talking about him and in the present tense because it’s difficult. I admire that he did things and I think would be one of the first to admit it. He made some mistakes. 

He did some things that I’m sure he was not proud of and I’m sure that he recognized as mistakes. And yet, in spite of all of that, he never let that stop him from just wholeheartedly pursuing his passions, especially his passions for for mushing and for being with dogs. And I think all of us have done things that we don’t look back on fondly. We’ve all done things that we recognize our mistakes or things that we’re ashamed of. And I think sometimes we carry that stuff around with us too much. And if we could get one lesson from Lance, and there’s a lot of lessons you can get from Lance but if you could get one thing from Lance, it’s that he did that stuff and he would admit it, and yet he didn’t let that stop him from pursuing his passion. And I’m not saying that that you know, that. Certainly not me, but I’m not saying that our listeners will. Will you know when for I did rods but I think that there’s something really important to that. And I hate when I hate when people die, and they’re and people fall into these two camps. They either lionize the person and start acting like he was perfect, or they demonize them and they start cutting him down. And Lance Mackey was a human being and he had flaws, and he had amazing strengths. And there’s a lot of stuff to admire about him. And I just, I, I think the fact that he was human, and that he had problems makes me admire him all that much more.

Lance listened to the podcast 

Robert: Thank you, Alex for sharing and I agree with with everything you said especially there towards the end about you know, finding finding that that way whether you’re you know, everybody has flaws. And of course I am. I am one to speak of that for sure. You know, as you guys tell your stories I come from it from a mushers perspective, you guys are definitely from the fans perspective, the volunteers perspective, and I just have a story or shoot a story or two to share about spending time with Lance at checkpoints and at races and, and that sort of thing. I think I raced with him five or six times I guess in qualifying races and in sprint races. Of course, I was never with him on the trail because he was just so much faster than than me and just about everybody else. During that time on the trail together. 

But when I did interact with him at checkpoints and at at the starting line and and that sort of thing. He was always so gracious. And I know so many people have said that in the threads over the last few days about how he would he would always be there for for other people, whether he’s coming out after the Iditarod finish or wait for people at checkpoints or give advice and so on and so forth. And he always did that for everybody that I ever saw. him around. He was not unapproachable on on a race and you know, there’s often two camps there, especially if you think about other sports and you have these, you know, mega superstars that play into the NFL or hockey or whatever, and they’re just, they just seem to be so unapproachable and that’s a totally different spin for Lance. He was always there for for just about anybody to offer advice or encouragement.

 And just a quick story, I guess it was in 2019 or so. He came out to Eagle River to run in the Eagle River Classic which is sort of a big time sprint race here and in the mat su bowl you know anchorage anchorage bowl, Mat-Su area, and at that time, he was not at the height where he was before he was you know he was he was on the on the downside, if you will in terms of of being dominant. And we all know you know how he did and I did arrive during those years, but I remember waiting for the for the open class to start they always started at the at the end of the day so the last class to go and he and I spent some time in the in the in the clubhouse just talking about mushing and it’s just so surprising how he knew everything about everything. And he would talk about our podcast and he says I remember when you had so and so on are I remember when you talked about this or that so not only was it cool that he was a fan of the show and he listened often I don’t know if he was a weekly listener or not. But he offered advice to the stories that we told during the podcast and I think that that was that was really cool. And you know, just just having his insight to what we’re doing. And you know, he obviously he enjoyed it. And on occasion, he would even criticize the podcast and he would say something like you know when when Alex and I would we’d be talking about whatever and he would say you know that’s that’s not exactly how it went down.

 Let me let me clarify a thing or two and he would criticize the podcast and and set the story straight if you will. And and sometimes I remember to clarify that on the next episode that we did or whatever. But often I just sort of let it slide and, you know, try to make up for it as we went along. But I guess in summary, it was just him being sort of the ultimate musher. He was there not only for his dogs, but for for his fellow competitors. And, you know, obviously he was super competitive as as long as he possibly could be and he wanted to win, but he was always there as an ambassador for the sport. And I think that that’s my favorite memory for sure. So before we go, guys, I definitely want to leave a minute or two for for some some up and we’ll go back to Toni, is there anything else you want to say in in regard to Lance or in tribute to him before we end the show?

Toni: you know, as you were saying that he was always approachable. That was another thing that we saw a lot of in the tributes was just how giving he was to the fans to the volunteers to to other mushers. And that’s something that I remember hearing all throughout you know, my one and only time that I worked at the Iditarod headquarters and a couple of different positions as a volunteer was in 2010. 

So when he was winning his fourth I did arise championship as it was and I’ll admit I was in it. I was in a different camp. I think we all know which one it was and so I was kind of cheering for somebody else and but it was funny because when he wanted oh seven I was like, Oh my God, thank you something new something. You know, it was reinvigorating for me because of the whole lore of the number 13 and the six and and all of that and so it was just destiny and so I was really into that and then by four I was like okay, this is falling back into the pattern of you know, it’s the same guy when so I get it. I understand why why people have been complaining the last few years about a certain other team that this one of you not quite as back to back but I get it. But it was funny because I be in the headquarters and of course everyone’s buzzing that Lance is going to do it again and he’s going to do something that none of the others have done before he’s gonna win for back to back. And you know, the T shirts are already being printed with his face on it and champion and fourth time and it was gonna be a huge deal. And he’s still sitting there in the different checkpoints not believing that people are excited for him. And that was something else that I think you know, especially after watching like the great alone, you get that feeling of Lance just never really truly accepted how much he meant to all of us from it from any angle. 

You know, he was always so giving to everybody else that he was so thankful and genuinely thankful. To each and every volunteer he made sure to look you in the eye shake your hand. He was never in my experience route on any of the races to the volunteers maybe to the other mushers, maybe to the officials, but those volunteers that he knew took time out of their busy schedule, you know or on vacation, maybe not paid time off, to come out to these races to make sure that he’s able to have this kind of fun. He was always so appreciative and genuine and and I don’t know, I hope that especially as news finally became official to the world that you know, he did have cancer again that he was struggling back in in August. You know, and the love poured in from all over the globe. You know, he’s still apologizing for some of the mistakes he made two years ago. And, and no one’s telling him, You know, nobody was telling him that he was still you know, they were just showing love to him and I really hope that you know, he was reading those comments and truly accepting and understanding just how important he was to so many people, even people that never got a chance to shake his hand. He is so very important to the sport not just for the legend of what he accomplished or anything but just because he He breeds like Like Alex said he was part dog. He was everything he epitomized what what we envision a dog musher to be and, and yet, you know, and I do agree with those that have said, you know, he was more than a dog musher. He was a dad he was a partner to so many of the, you know, from not only his personal life, but you know, he’s a partner in the racing group that he was in he was a partner in any business thing that he was in. 

He was he was fully invested and and it’s just such a big hole that he’s left behind and it it’s hard to talk about it like that, you know, this is final I still expect to talk about him next year. During Iditarod even if he’s not racing, you know, I’m not going to be thinking oh, he’s not with us. He’s watching.

Iditarod should retire bib 13 in honor of Lance Mackey

Robert: So thank you, Tony. And I’m gonna give Alex the last word since he is the storyteller of the group and I want to end it out on him. I know we didn’t talk about this at the beginning of the show, but very quickly. My final part of this is I got to know Lance’s family decently well over my time. Here in Alaska. I got to know his mom Kathie, before she passed away and hear the stories about Lance from her. I got to know his brother Jason, pretty well over the years and to hear the stories from from their trials and tribulations on the trail as well. And I got to know his niece, Brenda Mackey pretty well, we have a whole bunch of dogs from her and I’ve heard a story or two about Uncle Lance from from, from Brenda as well and those stories will always stick with us and I know that that Lance is a part of the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame and of course, the mushing Hall of Fame, or whatever I guess you cannot retire a jersey like you can in the NFL for Lance, but if I had my druthers, I think that I would probably retire bib number 13. For for Lance Mackey and his accomplishments for the sport. I’m sure you both would agree with me there. And with that, I’m going to leave the last word. Before we close to Alex, what do you have to in the show, Alex?

Alex: So I just want to piggyback on what Tony was saying. I got the impression as late as like 2015 or 2016 that Lance didn’t quite know or understand how much he meant to fans of mushing especially fans outside of Alaska. And I am I joined with Tony and hoping that towards the end that he got to really appreciate how much people love and care about him and I I just wanted to mention in 2010 when I was in Nome for the for the very tail end of the race. One of the things that struck me and you know, if you’ve watched the finish of Iditarod when the winner comes in, there’s there’s several 1000 people on the streets, and when you get to like number 32 or so there’s sometimes a couple dozen people there. And I don’t know if he did this for every musher who came in, but every musher that I saw come in either watching on the live stream or when I was in Nome, Lance was there, even if there were only like five other people at the finish line. Lance came out to greet everyone who finished I did arrive and he congratulated them and he shook their hands or gave them a hug, and then he and then he left. 

And that to me says so much about how how he understands what this sport is and what it means to be able to, you know, we say all the time and you know you and I have said this on the show and you and Toni it says also that it’s such an accomplishment just to finish 1000 mile race. It’s something I will never do. And you know, almost everybody who runs dogs or thinks about running dogs. That’s their goal and it’s so hard and so few people are able to actually do that. And I think Lance, really deep in his soul, understood that and wanted to celebrate every person who came in, whether it was someone who someone had won or someone who was top 10 or you know someone who was 63rd You know, and that says to me, this is someone who really understands what’s important. 

Robert: There you have it, guys, thank you very much for joining us, Toni and Alex. It was a pleasure to have you on I’m glad we could get time together to do this show to tribute, the great Lance Mackey and his life and I know that we only had a short amount of time to be able to do it here on the podcast, but I would love to keep the conversation going over on social media. And wherever else you’re listening to this podcast, drop us a comment tell us your favorite stories. About Lance Mackey and what you thought about his influence in the sport. I know that it’s been done a lot over the last weekend but I’m sure that this conversation will continue on for for many more weeks. And you’re right Toni it will be interesting to see how how the mushing world responds next year with with this passing because there will never be another guy like like Lance Mackey. So on behalf of my co host, Toni and Alex, this is Robert for mushy radio. We will see you guys next time. Goodbye.





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