Health issues could end four-time Iditarod winner’s career

Lance Mackey warms up in the Tanana, Alaska checkpoint during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Tuesday, March 10, 2015. Mackey, a cancer survivor, has poor circulation in his hands and feet and is using battery-powered gloves this year. (AP Photo/Alaska Dispatch News, Loren Holmes)
Lance Mackey warms up in the Tanana, Alaska checkpoint during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Tuesday, March 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Alaska Dispatch News, Loren Holmes)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — He beat cancer, but the treatment cost him most of his teeth. He can’t feel his fingers because of another disease. It feels like his fingernails are being pushed off his body.

Life has become a different reality for Lance Mackey, a man at the height of his sport just five years ago who today has trouble doing even the most basic things required of a dog musher.

A scruffy Alaska character who looks much older than his 44 years, Mackey overcame throat cancer to win four straight Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Races. But another set of health problems may make this year’s thousand-mile race to Nome the last for Mackey.

Mackey suffers from Raynaud’s syndrome, which limits circulation to the hands and feet.

He can’t use his swollen and blackened fingers in cold weather. He can’t manipulate the stiff digits enough to do the simple tasks a musher must, like putting booties on his dog’s paws to protect them from the elements. His brother and fellow musher, Jason Mackey, who has his own team, has agreed to stay with Lance at the back of the pack to help with his dogs.

It’s a life-changing blow for a man who knows no other lifestyle.

“I love this sport,” he said before choking back tears in a video posted on the Iditarod website. “I can’t do it no more.”

Mackey comes from an Alaska mushing family. His father, Dick, won the Iditarod in 1978. Lance’s brother, Rick, won it in 1983.

Lance didn’t make his mark for almost another 25 years. He seemingly came out of nowhere to dominate the sport, winning four straight titles from 2007-2010. He also twice did the unthinkable in dog mushing, winning back-to-back thousand mile races with the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race with only a two-week rest between them.

Mackey told The Associated Press before this year’s race that he enjoyed every minute of that run, but admitted that pressure from fans and problems in his personal life started to get to him.

“Lance was loved by the public for many of the same reasons that it was hard for the mushers to accept him,” said Danny Seavey, 32, a former competitor and mushing tourism operator who works as a media analyst.

Mackey is the guy who would go have a beer “or whatever” with fans after a race, Seavey said. Alaskans loved how accessible Mackey was and the way he defied authority. It wasn’t a bad boy image Mackey was trying to create.

“It’s just actually who he was,” Seavey said.

But now, Mackey is slowing down. The radiation treatment on his throat destroyed his saliva glands. “That ultimately caused my teeth to disintegrate,” he said.

A dentist found and yanked “a bunch of abscessed teeth.” Mackey said the infections were pretty serious, but he is now having dentists rebuild his teeth.

Then he was found to have Raynaud’s, which severely limits circulation, and is exacerbated by cold. To compensate, he’s carrying gloves and socks that are heated by battery power, and he’s carrying solar panels in his sled to recharge them.

He took last year off from racing, and is now trying to get back to the point he was in 2010. He is rebuilding his kennel, has two new dog handlers and a new sponsor in Forza10, an Italian dog food company.

Before this year’s race, he said he would probably run the Iditarod next year, and look at some sprint races in the Lower 48.

“I want to get back to the level I was at, no doubt about it, but we’ll see how my body reacts to that.”

The reports from the Iditarod trail so far this year don’t look good. Even so, Mackey says he’ll stay in the sport as long as he can.

“This is what I do,” he said. “This is who I am.”

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