Sunday, March 18, 2007

220. New Term: " Iditaquest champion" - for Lance Mackey (and dogs!)

Once again, I am going to pirate a column from the Anchorage Daily News.

Mackey's spectacular tale won't reach ears of Outside sports fans

Beth Bragg

Funny how Alaskans always manage to capture the nation's attention when they do or say something silly, but become invisible when they do something remarkable.

I'm talking about Lance Mackey and his storybook journey into sports history.

His back-to-back victories in the world's longest and gnarliest sled-dog races set a new standard for toughness in Alaska but barely registered a blip Outside.

About 18 hours after Mackey had crossed the finish line in Nome to add the Iditarod championship to the Yukon Quest title he won exactly four weeks earlier, I called ESPN Radio in Connecticut to ask if Mackey's feat had been reported on any of the network's many news reports.

It had not.

Here in Alaska, people are celebrating the team of wonderdogs that helped Mackey coin a new phrase -- Iditaquest champion -- and script a story every bit as compelling as anything the world of sports has served up in recent memory.

Outside, the only dogs getting attention are the underdog basketball teams hoping for a March Madness upset.

"To be honest -- and it's unfortunate -- but people don't care. They don't understand it,'' said John Seibel, a former Anchorage sportscaster who now hosts a four-hour nightly talk show that airs nationwide on ESPN Radio. "It's pretty frustrating to me because I covered it for three years. In the Lower 48 it gets a little blurb when it's over, and then you've got idiots like (radio host) Jim Rome who, whenever a dog dies, jumps all over it and calls it the I-Killed-A-Dog.''

It's disheartening to remember how the national media fawned over a legally blind musher who placed 57th in last year's race. Mackey's story is far better, yet it's not getting much play outside Alaska.

He's the Lance Armstrong of mushing, a cancer survivor who has endured as much as any athlete in headlines today.

A softball-sized lump was removed from his neck, along with his salivary glands and some muscle, after Mackey was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma in the months between the 2001 and 2002 Iditarods. He was still undergoing treatment when he entered the 2002 race, sponsored by doctors amazed at his resiliency and toughness.

He didn't make it to Nome that year, but by the next season he was winning races. In 2005, four years after surgery and radiation, Mackey won the Yukon Quest and placed seventh in the Iditarod.

Last year, he repeated as Quest champ and was 10th in the Iditarod -- minus his left index finger, which he persuaded doctors to amputate. Nerve damage from the cancer had made the finger useless, a source of pain and a disadvantage on the trail. As Mackey told a Peninsula Clarion reporter, "I gotta keep doing what I love, even if it means sacrificing a digit to do it."

All the while, Mackey was challenging conventional wisdom that says the same driver can't win the 1,000-mile Quest and the 1,100-mile Iditarod in the same year.

On Tuesday, he proved everyone wrong. He crossed under Nome's famous burled arch to win the Iditarod, 28 days after he had claimed the Quest title in Fairbanks. Eight of the nine dogs in harness had completed both journeys with their master; together, they mushed 2,100 miles in less than 40 days and looked no worse for the wear: As Mackey jumped for joy and raised his arms in victory, the dogs wagged their tails.

Had they been running in the Lower 48, they'd have run coast to coast.

"It's almost hard to realize truly what he's accomplished,'' said his dad, 1978 Iditarod champion Dick Mackey. "It's enough of a high to win the Iditarod, you know, but to have won both races with the same dog team is such an unbelievable feat.''

It's a feat that begs for comparisons, so here's one: Mackey's twin victories are like a runner winning the Boston Marathon one week and the London Marathon the next.

But unlike marathon runners who get nourishment at feed stands along the race route, Mackey barely ate or drank from Shaktoolik on, some 219 miles. Without salivary glands, he must chase food with water, because he can't swallow on his own. The procedure proved too time-consuming as he battled to beat Paul Gebhardt to Nome.

This was the biggest and most phenomenal Iditarod finish since Libby Riddles mushed into an Arctic blizzard in 1985 to become the first woman to win the race. That achievement made headlines worldwide, and understandably so. Riddles shattered images, showing that guts and grit aren't traits exclusive to those equipped with a Y chromosome.

Now it's Mackey who has shaken the mushing world, although with little fanfare beyond Alaska.

But that's OK. Let the rest of the world mock our bridges to nowhere and scorn our efforts to open ANWR while we revel in a story that could only happen here, a story about an iron-man musher and his kennel of wonderdogs.

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