Lance Mackey had tears frozen to his cheeks when he crossed the Yukon Quest finish line in Fairbanks on Tuesday afternoon.
It was the 36-year-old Alaskan’s third Quest, and his third consecutive win.
“The dogs are the stars, not me,” he told a shivering crowd clustered on the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks.
“They’re a great team and I’m fortunate to be the one driving them.”
For the win, Mackey takes home US$40,000 of the $200,000 purse. He also gets to keep four ounces of gold he won for being the first musher into Dawson City.
Mackey ran the race in 10 days, two hours and 37 minutes, beating Frank Turner’s 1995 record for fastest time by 14 hours.
“I like to think of that as a bonus — bragging rights,” said Mackey.
“And I’m going to brag.”
On Monday night, Mackey arrived at the last checkpoint, Chena Hot Springs, with an eight-hour lead on runner-up Hans Gatt.
And he wasn’t in a rush.
The earliest Mackey could leave Chena, after the mandatory eight-hour layover, was 1 a.m. the next morning.
But half-an-hour after his first wake-up call, there was still no sign of Mackey — and his mom was getting worried.
“I wish he’d wake up,” she said, smoking outside the checkpoint door.
“He’s got a finish line waiting for him.”
Kathie Smith knows how deeply her son can sleep.
“I can’t even begin to imagine how tired he is,” she said.
Smith was battling her own fair share of sleep deprivation.
During the race, Mackey’s mom wakes up through the night to check the website and results.
“It’s the last thing I do before I go to bed, then I’m up an hour later, checking them again,” she said.
With two sons who race, Smith finds plenty of time to worry.
“It’s a mom thing,” she said, looking toward the closed door where Mackey was sleeping.
Mackey’s eight-hour lead didn’t make Smith feel any better.
“It’s a dog race, anything can happen,” she said, remembering when she ran the North American with Mackey kicking in her belly.
“You’re never there ‘til you’re there.”
After a steak dinner and a soak in the hot springs, Mackey found it hard to get up.
“I was exhausted getting out of that hot tub,” he said, finally awake an hour later.
“But I’ve got enough of a lead I can take a little extra time and not feel too guilty about it.”
Gatt arrived before Mackey left, and the pair shook hands.
After eating too many tiger prawns at the Mile 101 dog drop, Gatt was feeling awful.
The Atlin musher’s gut hurt and he’d been throwing up for most of the run.
But within the hour, he was eating a Caesar salad and trying to stomach some steak.
Gatt, who travelled with Gerry Willomitzer and William Kleedehn for much of the race, made a conscious decision to pull ahead in Eagle.
The three-time Quest champ knew his team was in good shape, so he cut an hour of rest and left early.
“And they never tried to cut rest and catch me,” he said.
By the time Gatt reached the hot springs, he was almost four hours ahead of Willomitzer and Kleedehn.
After running into Gatt, Mackey moved a little faster.
“Why did you stay longer than you had to at the hot springs,” said Iditarod champ Dick Mackey, hugging his son at the finish.
“Why did I take that extra time?” said Mackey, giving his dad a huge grin.
“Because I could.”
But he didn’t relax until he rounded that last corner in Fairbanks and saw the finish line, he said.
Mackey suspected Gatt was out to get him this year, and Mackey wanted to catch him off guard.
“I’d heard Hans thinks the race starts in Dawson,” he said.
“And when I heard this, I thought, he’s already way behind.”
Mackey made a move early in the race, and didn’t get a response.
“Lance jumped them at the get-go,” said race marshal Mike McCowan.
“And he drove the nail into the coffin on that run from Fortymile to Eagle.”
Mackey has “one hell of a dog team,” he added.
“With a team like that, we don’t stand a chance,” said Kleedehn, in Eagle.
Larry and Hobo Jim have won the past two Quests for Mackey, but this year, Lippy took Larry’s spot up front for most of the race.
Mackey’s main lead dog just wasn’t fast enough, and moved back in the team.
“The other dogs kept running over him,” said Mackey.
“So I put Lippy up there for speed, and she picked it up.”
Proving herself in overflow, Lippy guided the team from trail marker to trail marker like a pro.
“They’re a hell of a group of dogs,” said Mackey.
“They do whatever I ask, and then beg for more.”
Rolling in the snow and wagging their tails, the team was still full of energy at the finish line.
And that’s how Mackey wants them.
When he pulled into Dawson with a barking, lunging team, he said this is what he wanted to see at the finish.
“I don’t want to pull in with skinny dogs, or dogs that are lying flat out,” he said.
“I want them jumping and barking. And if this means I end in fifth, so be it.”
After blowing the speed record out of the water, Mackey made a confession to the Fairbanks crowd.
“Believe it or not, this isn’t my fast team,” he said.
“These are the strong Quest dogs.”
The fast team is still back at Mackey’s Fairbanks kennel waiting to run the Iditarod in nine days.
“I have a plan,” he said.
“And so far half of it has turned out pretty good.”
Part of Mackey’s plan is to win the Quest five years in a row.
“Three times has already been done,” he said, referring to Gatt’s record.
And it can be run faster, he added.
“There were a couple of checkpoints I messed around — I think there’s room for improvement.”
Racing dogs is Mackey’s job, and he wants to do it to the best of his ability.
“I’m determined to be as good as I can for as long as I can,” he said.
“Because I won’t be doing it forever.”
Racing is taking a toll on Mackey, who survived throat cancer in 2001, after undergoing surgery and radiation treatment.
Still on medication, the musher has to drink large amounts of water. And carrying those cold bottles inside his snowsuit isn’t pleasant, he said.
Mackey also struggles with his hands.
Two years ago, he had one of his index fingers surgically removed after doctors couldn’t figure out why it was so painful.
And the pain is now spreading to his other fingers.
“I had four hand warmers in each mitt, and my fingertips are still cold,” he said at the finish.
Doing something as simple as zipping up his snowsuit makes them sting.
“It’s no fun,” he said.
For now, Mackey chooses to attribute it to frostbite.
“But it makes me wonder how long I’ll be able to do this,” he said.
Gatt arrived in Fairbanks 6.5 hours after Mackey with eight dogs and was surprised to learn he’d also beaten Turner’s previous record.
His second-place finish pays US$30,000.
“My dog team was falling apart right from the start,” he said, mentioning the hard, fast trail.
Gatt’s dog were used to training on soft snow, and some injuries started to show up as early as Braeburn.
By the time he’d reached Pelly, Gatt was considering scratching in Dawson.
“But we talked it over and I decided to finish what I started,” he said.
Gatt agreed with Mackey that the race starts in Whitehorse, he just didn’t have the dog team this year, he said.
And there might not be a next year.
Gatt is running the Iditarod in nine days, and it could be his last race.
“I am thinking of retiring,” he said.
“There are lots of other things to do in the world.
“But I love the dogs.”
Willomitzer arrived in Fairbanks at 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, in third place.
He was only three minutes ahead of Kleedehn.
It was minus 38 degrees Celsius, and both mushers were cold and frosty when they pulled in.
“Where’s the trail to Nome,” said Willomitzer, joking about the upcoming Iditarod.
Kleedehn arrived with his veteran dogs in the back of the team and his young rookies up front.
“They didn’t know this is the finish,” he said.
“For them the trail goes on forever.”
Michelle Phillips and Iditarod musher Aaron Burmeister are racing to the finish after leaving Chena Hot Springs only 10 minutes apart.
Burmeister headed out first.
The pair was expected by lunchtime Wednesday.