Legendary Alaska musher Lance Mackey dies at age 52

a man in a winter jacket outside
Musher Lance Mackey gets his sled dog team ready for the 2020 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race ceremonial start in Anchorage on March 7, 2020. (Joey Mendolia/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska mushing icon and four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey has died at the age of 52.

Mackey passed away Wednesday night after a long battle with cancer, his kennel and father announced on Facebook. Mackey had survived a bout with throat cancer about two decades ago, but was diagnosed with cancer again last year.

Fellow mushers said Thursday they’ll remember Mackey for his humor, his grit and his kindness. He has long been a fan favorite and a fixture at sled dog races. Jeff King, also a four-time Iditarod winner, said the mushing community around the world will mourn Mackey’s passing.

“He was a very unique individual with tremendous drive and talent,” King said. “And really an icon for the sport and for those with illnesses. And he fought a lot of battles and he always came out on top. But it finally caught up with him. We’re going to miss him.”

Mackey comes from a family of mushers. His dad, Dick, won the 1978 Iditarod by a single second. Mackey’s half-brother, Rick, won the 1983 race.

Mackey ran his first Iditarod in 2001. He finished 36th. Soon after, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. He underwent surgery and radiation. He started the 2002 Iditarod with a feeding tube, and he made it about 350 miles down the trail before calling it quits.

Within just three years, he started winning. He won four Yukon Quest races in a row and an unprecedented four straight Iditarods. The two 1,000-mile races happen just two weeks apart. In 2007, Mackey became the only musher to win both races in the same year — a feat many thought impossible. And then he did it again the next year.

But Mackey also battled with drug problems and personal issues, and his cancer and its treatments left lasting impacts. Radiation and Raynaud’s made his hands extra susceptible to cold. He also had his salivary glands removed so he had to constantly drink water.

Mackey was diagnosed with cancer again about a year ago.

In a Facebook post on Aug. 5, Mackey wrote that he had been going through cancer treatments, and the past several months were the worst part. He said he was in the hospital, with 24-hour care. He said he wanted to thank his friends and family, and tell them how much he loved them.

“Fully believe it is not my time yet,” he said, “and I’m still doing pretty good but I’m going to have a lot of things to get done in my life.”

Iditarod musher Lance Mackey at the 2020 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race ceremonial start. (Joey Mendolia/Alaska Public no Media)

King said he’ll remember Mackey’s devotion to his dogs. He said he remembers watching Mackey step outside at the Takotna checkpoint during the 2006 Iditarod.

“And every one of the dogs pointed at him with this perked-ear love and appreciation and excitement to see Lance,” said King. “And it’s a harder image I suspect to share with people that aren’t as doggy as Lance and I are, but to be able to read that team’s opinion of Lance was just unmistakable. He was great to his dogs and they trusted him and, that way, he got them to do incredible things.”

One of those incredible things took place during the following year’s Iditarod near Rainy Pass, when King came across Mackey with seemingly catastrophic damage to his sled.

Lance Mackey cooks up a snack for his dogs. (Emily Schwing)

“His runner had broken right behind the rear stanchion, so he only had one runner and he was riding one runner. The other side for his right foot was completely gone,” King said. “I just remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, you poor guy. You’re totally screwed. Hopefully you can get another sled at Rainy Pass.’”

King said someone in Rainy Pass offered Mackey a sled for “a bunch of money,” but he refused.

“He said, ‘Screw it,’ and he took the sled down the Dalzell Gorge with one runner all the way to Rohn,” King said. “And I was stunned thinking, ‘Oh my God. Yeah, that’s like impossible.’ It’s notorious with two runners, much less anyone who could ride down the gorge with a great team with one runner. And he ended up taking that broken one-runner sled all the way to Nikolai and it was over 100 miles of the hardest trail in the race.”

A replacement sled was waiting for Mackey in Nikolai, King said, which he rode to his first Iditarod triumph.

Mackey started a total of 16 Iditarods. He made the top 10 twice in 2005 and 2006 before his series of Iditarod victories, winning a career total of more than $370,000 in prize money. Mackey’s last Iditarod start was in 2020. After publicly discussing using marijuana on the trail to alleviate his pain, he was disqualified from that race due to a positive test for methamphetamines. He entered substance-abuse treatment.

Longtime Iditarod race marshal Mark Nordman said Thursday that while Mackey had a tough life and struggled with addiction, he continued to improve himself.

He was also busy raising his two young children. His partner, Jennifer Smith, died in an ATV accident in 2020.

“He went through treatment, he was really on the right path,” Nordman said. “I’ve talked to a few people — people that are very close to him — that have been around him. He had a vision of trying to not only change his life, but try to get more people into the sport and just understand what it’s all about.” 

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Chris Klint is a web producer and breaking news reporter at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at cklint@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Chris here.

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