Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Clash of the Titans

Okay, I admit it: I've been slow posting because I've been watching Iditarod.

It's been an epic race this year. There are always stories galore in I-rod, but this year in particular seems heavily loaded.

For one thing, Jeff King - one of four four-time champions and a giant of the sport - announced his competitive retirement right before the race... and the mighty Lance Mackey said this may also be his last competitive I-rod (though neither ruled out the possibility of doing it in the future just for the fun of it, without the intent to win). Jeff has been denied a win the last three years in a row by Lance. It would be no surprise if Jeff, one of the titans of the Iditarod, wanted to go out with a win over Mackey - not to mention a 5th championship, which would land him with the legendary Rick Swenson, to date the only person ever to win five I-rods. Jeff is a tough, canny, innovative musher, and a wily and determined competitor, an exceptional dog man, and he has proven over and over that he has some serious racing chops - so any time he's in a race, he's a contender and a threat. Also in the mix, however, are the considerable talents of Hans Gatt, Hugh Neff, Martin Buser, Rick Swenson, Dee Dee Jonrowe, Aliy Zirkle, Jessie Royer, John Baker, Mitch and Dallas Seavey - a host of mushing talent. Mackey felt that his toughest competitors this year would be King, Gatt, Baker and Seavey. Of those, no one has a stronger rivalry with Lance than Jeff King does.

First, however, he has to get by Lance.

Lance is kind of an unassuming guy, and although he's been around dog racing literally his entire life, he carried a number of burdens into his first I-rod win. For one thing, Lance is a cancer survivor; this in itself is not necessarily a burden, but his treatment for cancer left him with no salivary glands and enough pain in one of his fingers that he voluntarily had it amputated. His neck had to be surgically reconstructed after his cancer surgery, and radiation therapy has impaired the circulation in his hands and feet, making him frostbite-prone. Lance attempted his first post-cancer I-rod (in 2001) with a feeding tube still in place; he had to scratch that year - no surprise there, except that he was bold enough to even attempt it, under the circumstances. Lance had 5 I-rod starts under his belt when 2007 rolled around, but no wins. By consequence, Lance was something of an unknown quantity, I-rod-wise, when he stepped onto the runners with bib 13 in March of 2007. There were plenty who thought he couldn't do it, not least of their reasons being that he had just run - and won - the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest, the only race on earth that might be tougher than Iditarod.... and he was planning to run I-rod with 12 of the same dogs as he'd run in the Quest, leaving him only four slots for fresh dogs. No one had ever attempted this feat before, and many were sure he'd burn his dogs out, running them into the ground or fading somewhere between Cripple and Unalakleet. Initially I was undecided about this, myself; and when he started to make his move to the front, I started to be afraid he'd over-committed himself and his dogs. I've been a Lance fan since I vetted the Knik 200 several years ago; Lance was our race winner, and I'd liked how his dogs looked and moved, and how he'd interacted with them, so I was hoping he wouldn't do anything that would disappoint me in his dogmanship.

Lance was carrying the weight of dreams and legends into that race. It was his 6th attempt at the race, and he'd gone to some effort to be first in line so he could have bib 13. His father, Dick Mackey, and his brother, Rick, had both won Iditarod championships on their 6th attempts, while wearing bib 13. I think maybe Lance felt it was his year, and he made the effort to get bib 13 because of the symmetry of it - following in the family footsteps - and, maybe, for luck. And as it turned out, it was his year: Lance won the I-rod, 6th time out and in bib 13, just as his father and brother had done before him. But unlike them - unlike anyone in history - he did it after winning the Quest with the same dog team, finishing just 16 days before he started the Iditarod.

It was an incredible feat of athleticism, management, strategy and grit for both Lance and his dogs, but a lot of people said it was a fluke. Still... the following year Lance did exactly the same, making him not only the only musher in history to have a back-to-back victory in the Quest and the I-rod, but also the only one to do it twice, and the only one to do it two consecutive years. And remember: most of the same dogs in both races. And (if that weren't enough), just as a by-the-way, it also made Lance the first 4-time Quest champ (Hans Gatt won it this year to join Lance as a 4-time champ)... but Lance is still the only person ever to win the Quest four times in a row.

The next year, 2009, Lance skipped the Quest so he could coach another musher, but still ran in the I-rod. By now Jeff King was well aware that Mackey was a threat. Mackey has said repeatedly that King was the person he considered the best musher in the world, and - not leaving anyone out and no disrespect for other mushers - he was most likely to be the man you'd have to beat to win I-rod. The second time these two met head-to-head in 2008, Lance had some problems with sick dogs - but he managed them and kept his team together, taking his second win in part out of exceptional dogmanship and in part out of guile: In Elim, Lance was only minutes ahead of King. He got out his dog food cooler, hung his heavy parka up and puttered about as anyone would who was going to overnight in the checkpoint. He also, however, drank about 4 cups of coffee and laid down, practically vibrating from caffeine, and pretended to sleep. King, reassured, dozed off. Lance quietly got up and made his way out of the checkpoint, leaving his parka hanging by the door so as to decoy King for as along as possible while Mackey made tracks up the trail. He earned himself a lead which none of the pack could erode and took his second win.

In 2009, after being taken in by the Mackey Maneuver, King took no chances. He slept with his feet propped on Lance's gear so that Lance couldn't move it without waking King. However, Lance - abetted by the weather - carved himself out an 8 hour lead into Nome. Horrific winds and severe cold kept racers hunkered down in checkpoints and shelters along the trail; some mushers had to be rescued when blowing snow buried not just the trail, but also the trail markers, completely. Lance bulled his way through some of it and got ahead of other parts of it while other mushers were pinned down or turned back. Even Mackey - who is surely the toughest person I've ever come across - described parts of the trail as "brutal". But he faced it down to win his 3rd consecutive I-rod, earning himself a place in the I-rod hall of fame. A consecutive three-peat in the I-rod is an elusive beast, and only a few mushers had ever done it: Swingley, Buser and Swenson among them. Nobody has ever managed four in a row.

This year, the odds were heavily against Lance. For one thing, never in history has any racer taken four consecutive I-rod wins. For another, Lance is in need of surgery on both knees, and is recovering from surgery on one elbow. For a third, King - always a competitor, and hungry for his 5th title - was pulling no punches. For a fourth, Hans Gatt, who had just beaten Lance in the Quest, has a hell of a team this year, and Lance himself said that Hans's dogs were faster than his own. And for a 5th... there was the controversy about drug testing.

There's always been a provision in the rules for testing mushers for drug use. It's just never been enforced. Lance - remember, a cancer survivor - has a legit prescription for the medical use of marijuana. Some people contended that Lance won his three-peat in I-rod - not to mention his back-to-back Quest victories and back-to-back Quest/I-rod combo wins - as a result of using performance-enhancing drugs. From what I've seen, it appears that pot is more likely to hinder one's performance in an athletic event than help it, unless the competition relies heavily on having the munchies or sitting in corners with a silly smile on your face and your eyes half-shut. Still, while Lance is one of the most popular and well-liked mushers in Alaska, some people appeared to be offended by his use of what is, admittedly, a controversial prescription med. There was a lot of clamoring about the drug-testing rule, with the result that a drug test was scheduled for this year's race. Quite a number of reporters stated that the rule was fairly openly directed specifically at Lance.

Well, okay, then. Lance elected to toe the line and voluntarily forgo any of his prescriptions for the duration of the race. This goes above and beyond the call of duty, in my opinion, but it is one sure way to silence the nay-sayers: Whatever Lance's performance in this year's race, it certainly cannot be said that his performance was either helped or hindered by the use of drugs, no matter how mundane, legitimately prescribed, or enhancing (or, perhaps, hindering) they might be.

Accordingly, Lance and his team left Anchorage this year in bib 49. In lead he had a tough, smart little bitch named Maple. She ran in lead last year, though on the run-in to Nome she was distracted by the crowds lining the chute and Lance paused on Front Street to put the incomparable Larry in lead with her to get her lined out. This year, a seasoned leader at the ripe old age of three, she was an important part of Lance's arsenal.

Both Lance and Jeff know that the first few days of this race are critical. Getting too racey early on will often see you paying for it down the trail. Jeff gave his team some time to get into the swing of things. Lance did the same, commenting at one point that the team didn't gel until the third day of the race. Up to that point they were working, but not working as an integrated unit, a perfect race machine. But about day three something clicked. Right about then and all of a sudden, Lance saw that there was an opportunity to win the race. It wouldn't be handed to him - I-rod wins never are - but there was a chance.

Still, there are always challenges along the trail. Lance had several of his food-drop bags thaw out, rendering the red meat unusable. This is a serious problem, since keeping the calories in your dogs is a critical factor in keeping them healthy and working, and Lance had to find a way around the obstacle of food spoilage to keep his dogs fed and fit. One thing his dogs are famous for is their willingness to eat, a critical factor in their winning ways: Dog physiology is different than ours in that, if you provide adequate calories and hydration, dogs can continue to perform at extreme levels with minimal rest for very long stretches. In humans, a similar duration of work would lead to muscle breakdown. But for some reason in dogs, it doesn't. They just continue on, the work honing them into something spectacular, something legendary. Something that can run and keep on running, eating miles that would bury other kinds of animals. Lance cottoned onto this understanding somewhere along the line; my personal speculation is that he'd already figured this out when he made the choice to back-to-back the Quest with the I-rod for the first time. And I think that his first back-to-back Quest/I-rod victory is the illustration of this point: the first 1,000 mile race served as a training regimen for the second 1,000 mile race. I watched his team live as it came into Nome in 2007, having just won their second 1,000 mile race in a month. The dogs were happy, barking, rolling in the snow, lunging into their harnesses. They looked like they could turn around and run right back to Anchorage. More, they looked like they wanted to.

Somehow Lance worked around the food issues. He still had other problems: his feet were freezing, his hands were sometimes so cold he cold barely use them, and Jeff had a substantial lead on him. Moreover, Hans Gatt - who, remember, had just beaten Lance in the Quest and who had, in Lance's opinion, a faster team - was right up there with them. And so were some other seriously talented teams and mushers.... and some of them were looking very good indeed.

Jeff King said that the 75-mile run from Rohn to Nikolai was the best of his career. Keep in mind that King has run every I-rod since 1991 (and some in the 1980's). That's 20+ years of I-rod running, and this year was his best run ever between those checkpoints. Going into Nulato, King was still leading Mackey, and Gatt's team was looking good. At that point, about 760 miles into the race, it's nearly three-quarters done. The Lance naysayers were starting to smile. Lance himself was hurting by then: tired, cold, with aching knees and a gimpy elbow. Still... we mustn't forget that this is the man who Jeff King himself has called the hardest competitor he's ever faced.

The run from Nulato to Kaltag is 42 miles, and the run from Kaltag to Unakalkeet is a further 90. That was the first time in this year's I-rod that Jeff King saw Lance Mackey is when Mackey blew through Kaltag, logging only minutes in the checkpoint. Up to that time, Lance was running behind King, with none of the leap-forgging into and out of checkpoints that often marks the progress of the leaders.

Heavy snows and deep trails this year made the trail out of Kaltag slow going; it took Jeff's team 5 hours to do the first 27 miles of it, and everyone had the same challenge to face in terms of the trail condiditons. There was a long time with no updates on the leaderboard; once the teams are out on the trail, it can be radio silence for a long time, leaving you time to wonder if someone went off the trail, or had an accident or a hurt dog or if their team is tired or quitting on them. Still, when the updates finally arrived, Mackey was in Unalakleet, having made a long 132-mile run in one go. He had he same trail to face outside Kaltag as King did - maybe a worse one, since he went through before King did - and was 14 hours en route. But he carved himself out a little bit of a lead, just shaving away at the other teams a bit at a time. Lance has said more than once that his team isn't always the fastest one out there - but they'd run to the ends of the Earth for him. And sometimes that's the more important factor: that willingness to get up and go, to slip into that rhythmic, mile-eating trot or that easy, rolling lope, and just go. On and on. To the ends of the Earth, if necessary.

When the race made it to Elim, Lance's team was looking good - maybe even better than they had at the early part of the race. They ate and drank well, tails wagging and looking cheerful, and left on their way to White Mountain at a fast trot, leading the race. At this stage of the race, Hand Gatt and Jeff King traded places, Jeff three and a half hours behind Lance and yeilding up his slot in second place to Gatt, himself two hours behind Lance. Gatt's team was looking good and moving fast, posting faster trail times than Lance. At that stage of the race, it was Lance's race to lose, but it wasn't in the bag yet: If he made a mistake, Gatt would reel him in. Gatt was in similar case: King, one of the legends of the race, was breathing down his neck. He couldn't afford any mistakes of his own. Meanwhile, to most of the field, Lance is a ghost. Only the two in the rabbit pack - Gatt and King - have seen him in the last few hundred miles. Even they might only see him for a few minutes in the checkpoint - if they see him at all. For most of them, he's left the checkpoint before they even get there.

There's a mandatory 8-hour layover at White Mountain. That's enough time for the dogs and the mushers to take a little break, and the fans to start biting their nails. It's also enough time to stop and consider some of the other stories in the race: Ramey Smyth fell off his sled on the way to Golovin and had to run after his team for an hour. Fortunately for him, they read the trail without difficulty and made their way to the Golovin checkpoint without getting lost, tangling with wildlife, or getting tangled up and fighting. Equally as fortunate, in Golovin they stopped and parked themselves without mishap, instead of continuing on to White Mountain without him. John Baker was making a good showing, despite having lost 5 hours outside of Cripple as a result of losing the trail (perhaps as a consequence of insufficient trail markers or markers that got blown over or buried). Rookie musher Jason Savidis - who lost a dog about midway through the race, and scratched by consequence - has been reunited with his dog Whitey; the escape artist, while ending Savidis's race, is no worse for the wear and his three-day walkabout in wildest Alaska.

It's 55 miles from White Mountain to Safety, and a further 22 to Nome. Lance's team leads it all the way - and it's Maple who leads them. They come into Nome in good daylight, to cheering crowds and chaos and excitement. Maple has to thread her team between a truck - inexplicably parked on Front Street in the run-in to the finish - and the mass of fans pressed up to the edge of the chute. This she does; gone are the days when Lance had to put his seasoned, unflappable Larry up front to show her how it's done. Larry himself is leading the team of Newton Marshall, the first Jamaican musher ever to compete in I-rod, running Lance's second string - so it's a good thing that Maple has learned her chops. Larry isn't there to help, but he's done his job: the next generation of leaders has absorbed his knowledge and keeps the legacy alive.

Lance won his fourth Iditarod in 8 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes and 9 seconds, only the second musher in history to break the 9-day mark; the all-time record is still owned by Martin Buser, another giant of the sport, by about 2 hours. Even so, it's a personal best for Lance - and for the second and third place finishers, Gatt and King, respectively. I guess this puts a definitive end to the "Lance won because of performance enhancement from medical Marijuana use" refrain; it seems like it might be a good idea to encourage him to go back on his meds in the future, since taking him off of them only makes him faster. Fast enough to best all his previous performances, incredible feats though they were.

Still, even though Lance doesn't have the fastest-ever Iditarod title, he has a host of other bests. Nobody has ever done what Lance did: he won four consecutive Quests, four consecutive I-rods, two consecutive back-to-back Quest/I-rod combos; he won six out of the eight 1,000-mile dog races in the last 4 years. In all of that, he never lost a dog. Jeff King, one of the most successful disatance mushers of all time, one who competed in 20+ I-rods, 20 of them consecutively, never having once scratched or lost a dog... Jeff himself said, in an interview in the vicintity of Elim checkpoint this year, "I won't - I can't - do what Lance is doing."

When you think about it, neither can anyone else: Running on frostbitten feet, with two bad knees, poor peripheral circulation and a gimp elbow; without salivary glands, a full set of fingers, adequate sleep or any medications... and without, incedentally, complaints, attitude or being a jerk about it.

Lance has said he might be up for another run to Nome in 2011... emphasis on might, I think, and no statements about whether it would be a fun run for him or a competitive one. The answers to that might be dependant on how the knee surgeries go this summer, and a host of other factors. I would be thrilled beyond speech if he took the trail again in '11, whether competitively or not; it has been a pleasure and a privelege to watch him run these last many years; to watch him do what everyone said could not be done, to watch him repeat feats everyone said were flukes, to watch him face up to the naysayers and silence them by running with the disadvantage of forgoing his prescription meds - and not only making a go of it, and not only being victorious in it, but making a record-setting and record-breaking performance of it.

Whether or not I ever see Lance run again, I don't know that I will ever see a race like this year's: a battle to the last by giants of the sport, by athletes who are, man and dog, amongst the toughest, fittest and most determined on this Earth. There was an extra load on this year's race in the sense that it may mark the last time we ever get to see Lance and Jeff duke it out - it may, in fact, mark the last time either of them ever take the runners on the Iditarod trail. It's always an epic challenge, the I-rod.... but this year, it really was a clash of Titans.