ARUN RATH, HOST:
The Yukon Quest is more than a dog sled race. It's a test of survival. The trail goes from Whitehorse, Yukon, all the way to Fairbanks, Alaska. That's a 1,000-mile journey that takes about 10 days to complete. Today, dogsled teams set off and veteran musher Lance Mackey is back. He's the Michael Jordan of the dog mushing world. And as NPR's Daniel Hajek reports, he's fought his way to the top.
DANIEL HAJEK, BYLINE: Lance Mackey says life keeps throwing him punches - the older he gets, the harder the punches. The gnarly scar down his neck is from throat cancer that almost killed him over a decade ago, and the treatment took its toll. He's missing a finger from nerve damage. He has no salivary glands, and he's lost his teeth.
LANCE MACKEY: I'm 44 years old, but I look like I'm 64, and I feel I'm 84, you know? I'm kind of beat up.
HAJEK: But he's still standing. Even when he's out with his dogs pushing through some of the most grueling, frigid parts of the Yukon Quest, Lance Mackey is tough.
MACKEY: Forty-mile-an-hour headwind in your face and, you know, it's 40 below, it's pitch black, you haven't slept in two days, and you're thinking what am I doing out here? Then you look up and you see your dogs all pulling hard and the sun's coming up over the horizon and you're one of very few people in the world that get to experience that or see that landscape and, you know, you think wow, this is why.
HAJEK: Mackey lives just outside Fairbanks, Alaska, where cold weather is just a way of life. At checkpoints during races, he's been seen flashing through with frosted eyelashes and icicles hanging from his goatee.
MACKEY: You know, there's a lot of people out there with missing digits and frost-bit faces, and we didn't have to go out and do this. We could've been, you know, sitting on a beach, drinking fruity drinks out of a coconut shell if we wanted. But we sacrifice some personal comfort, no doubt about it.
HAJEK: Ask Mackey to tell a story from the trail, and he could go on for hours, like the time he almost froze to death. Midway through the 2008 Yukon Quest, Mackey pulls off to give his dogs a much-needed break. The cold, he says, was unbearable.
MACKEY: I was so cold I couldn't get a fire to start. I walked up and down my team numerous times just trying to stay warm, keep my blood flowing.
HAJEK: His dogs, wearing their own coats and snowshoes, fell asleep on their beds of straw, but Mackey starts to feel the onset of hypothermia, and he's fighting to stay awake.
MACKEY: And I told myself there's no way I can lay down and go to sleep. I probably won't wake up.
HAJEK: They had to keep moving. Mackey says he was desperate.
MACKEY: I asked my dogs to dig deep, and I asked them if they were willing to get up and go. And they stood up and they started barking like it was the starting line. And I took off after four hours and they feed off our emotions and our thoughts. And they knew that I was maybe in a situation that they had to step up and pick up some of my weakness.
HAJEK: He ended up winning the Yukon Quest that year. His advice - trust your team and don't give up. He's had the perfect training for that. Before his dogsled days, he worked as a commercial fisherman out on the Bering Sea, and he had his share of close calls there, too, like the time a line snapped and a giant hook caught his hand.
MACKEY: I was somewhat bleeding profusely and my hand was in shock and numb. And the skipper stuck a roll of black tape in my mouth, told me to turn my head and he sewed me up (laughter). I about bit that roll of black tape in half, I'll tell you.
HAJEK: But Mackey says the money was good, so he stuck with it for 10 years. The problem was he was getting into trouble, from barroom brawls in port towns to drinking and drugs.
MACKEY: You know, I did a lot of things in those days that my parents weren't really proud of (laughter). They weren't bragging about some of the things I was doing, and I kind of destroyed a pretty good relationship with them in those years.
HAJEK: The only way his parents would trust him again was if he joined the family business. See, Mackey comes from a dog-mushing dynasty. His dad helped found the Iditarod back in the '70s. Even his mom and brothers race, too. So Mackey quit fishing. He cleaned up and with a rag-tag team of sled dogs, he set off. He says those dogs saved his life.
MACKEY: I could've been pretty much an adolescent teenager for the most part of my life, and I feel if I didn't have that everyday commitment and the responsibility of providing and caring for them, that I might be a train wreck.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, Lance Mackey.
HAJEK: Mackey's won four Quests and a record-breaking four consecutive Iditarods. In 2007, he did the impossible. He won the Quest and Iditarod back-to-back. Then, the next year, he did it again.
MACKEY: It's unbelievable.
HAJEK: But it's like Mackey says, life keeps throwing him punches. There's not much money in sled dog racing, and the money a musher gets from winning is spent on taking care of the dogs. Mackey's sponsors have steadily dropped out, and he's still paying off medical bills.
MACKEY: I'm struggling a little bit financially. I'm struggling a little bit with my positive attitude at times, but I'm fortunate to be alive and have a dog team that wants to go out and do great things. I've got a beautiful group of people in my corner. I said several years ago, if I got five more years of racing, I'd be grateful. And that was five years ago, so I'm saying it again - if I can get five more years of racing, I'll be grateful.
HAJEK: Out in the frozen wilderness, somewhere between Whitehorse and Fairbanks, he says, that's where he likes to be. As long as his dogs are willing, Lance Mackey says he'll keep racing. Daniel Hajek, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.