Iditarod champ inspires tomorrow’s leaders

By Sara Bruestle | May 08, 2013
Courtesy of: Theresa Daily Four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey at the start of the 2013 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. He finished in 19th place. Mackey visited Serene Lake Elementary on April 25 to talk to students about setting and accomplishing goals.

Four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey has a message for today’s youth: Never give up.

Mackey was the first to win four Iditarod races in a row (2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010). Most recently, he finished 19th in the 2013 Iditarod.

The Iditarod is a 1,000-mile sled dog race across the Alaska wilderness. From Anchorage to Nome, each musher and his team of 12 to 16 dogs cover about 975 miles in eight to 17 days.

Mackey, 43, of Fairbanks, spoke at a Serene Lake Elementary assembly on April 25 about leadership and setting and accomplishing goals. His overall message was: Life isn’t easy, but don’t let that stop you.

“They can have bumps and bruises in life and still accomplish things,” he said. “Don’t be discouraged by the stuff that gets you down.”

He grew up around dog racing and the Iditarod in Alaska with his father and three brothers. Mackey has been mushing since he was 5 years old. He raced in the Jr. Iditarod from age 14-17.

Mushing is in his blood: His father, Dick, and brothers Rick, Bill and Jason are also Iditarod mushers. The Mackeys have six championships in Iditarod alone. Dick Mackey co-founded the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1973.

Mackey was at the finish line in 1978 to see his father win the Iditarod by one second – the closest finish in history. His brother Rick won in 1983.

Mackey is also is a four-time Yukon Quest champion and is the only musher to win both 1,000-mile races back-to-back in the same year – also two times in a row (2007 and 2008).

He was inducted into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame in 2010. He has been nominated twice for an ESPY Award.

“The feeling is almost indescribable,” Mackey said of crossing the finish line. “The adrenaline in the air is energetic. Whether you win or you come in 20th, you still get the same reception.”

Although it’s his passion now, Mackey didn’t like dog racing at first. In fact, it made him miserable. He took a break from mushing after he turned 18 and became an Alaskan crab fisherman.

“Growing up around the sport wasn’t all glamorous,” he said. “I was getting a lot of the work for a little kid and none of the benefits, so to speak.”

He took the time on the boat to re-evaluate his life goals: Did he want to race dogs, or was that just his father’s wish?

“The whole time that I was on the Bering Sea fishing for crab, the only thing I really wanted to do more than that was race dogs – as odd as that sounds.”

After his father and brother Rick won the Iditarod, Mackey made it a goal to win it, too.

“I wanted to be just like my dad and my brother,” he said. “I wanted to win the Iditarod someday.”

It had been 12 years since he mushed dogs, but he got right back into it.

Mackey has raced in the Iditarod 12 times, in the Yukon seven times, and in more than 100 other dog races in the last 15 years. His fastest Iditarod was 1,200 miles in 8 ½ days.

His racing days almost ended, however, when Mackey was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2001, after his first Iditarod. He had to go through extensive surgery and radiation treatment.

Determined to still race, Mackey started the 2002 Iditarod with a feeding tube in his stomach. He had to drop out of the race halfway into it. He took another break from racing.

Mackey returned in 2005 to race the Yukon Quest and won it his rookie year. He repeated that win in 2006, 2007 and 2008, making him the first four-time Yukon Quest winner – and in a row.

“It became a lifestyle, a passion,” he said. “It’s something I can be proud of when I leave this Earth.”

In 2007, he returned to the Iditarod. That’s the year he won both the Yukon Quest and Iditarod within two weeks of each other – and then he did it again in 2008.

Fourth graders learn about dog racing and mushers like Mackey in an Iditarod Unit. The unit ties into Serene Lake’s Leader in Me program, which teaches seven habits of leadership.

Each student tracks a musher throughout the race: They calculate how far along the trail the sled is and how fast the dogs are running. They research the mushers’ biographies and write letters to them.

Teacher Becky Hovik also has students read books about the Iditarod, and set goals to cover “Iditarod miles” in so many pages. It was her idea to teach about the Iditarod.

“What we’re doing in class with the math, with the reading and writing, is real world application,” Hovik said.

She said Mackey has become an inspiration to her and to Serene Lake students: He shows them being a leader is not about being in first place, that it’s about hard work and being respectful.

As a cancer survivor, Mackey is an “underdog,” and that makes him one of her favorites, she said.

“Each day he fights through the pain and fights through the toughness and goes on with such a positive attitude,” Hovik said. “He’s just such a humble man, and puts his dogs first, and takes care of them.”

The Iditarod covers 1,000 miles (it was 1,200 miles before 2012) of the roughest, most beautiful terrain Mother Nature has to offer: jagged mountain ranges, frozen rivers, dense forests, desolate tundra and miles of windswept coast.

Temperatures can reach 40 below zero, winds can cause a complete loss of visibility, and hazards include snow overflow, long hours of darkness and treacherous climbs.

“There’s mountains on both sides, there’s always scenery to look at,” he said. “But you’re in parts of Alaska that nobody goes. It’s a little remote.”

As such, racing the Iditarod can be scary, but never once has Mackey felt alone on the trail.

“I have 16 of my best friends right there with me at all times,” he said. “I take care of them so they can take care of me and get me to the finish line. It’s a team effort.”

He said his dogs feel the same way he does when they finish a race.

“They want to do this, they absolutely love it,” Mackey said. “We’re the people on the back going along as a fortunate passenger.”

Want Mackey to speak at your event? This summer, he and cellist Sabe Flores are touring the United States and Canada. Email them at For more information, go to or

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