Down but never out, Lance Mackey endures a brutal Eagle River Classic
Lance Mackey will never let go of the dogsled.
The Fairbanks musher endured one of the more brutal chapters of his storied mushing career Saturday at the Eagle River Classic sprint dog races after a starting line mishap in the Open Class race sent him down the trail face-first as he held onto his handlebars with all the grip his nine gnarled fingers could muster.
“It’s always something,” Mackey said through a pained grin as he crossed the finish line nearly an hour later in front of a handful of fans at the Chugiak Dog Mushers Association Beach Lake Trails.
Later he explained the pins that attach his skis to the sled came loose just just before the start. He tried to quickly fix the problem in the seconds before the start, but the sled went sideways just as the dogs began tearing down the trail.
“Next thing I knew I was on my face and upside down,” Mackey recalled.
Mackey clung desperately to the sled as several handlers sprinted behind in an effort to catch the struggling musher. What happened next was pure Lance.
“I’ve never seen nothing like that in my life,” recalled Ron Erhart, one of the men running to help.
Mackey was being dragged down the trail by more than a dozen sprint dogs when Erhart saw the musher roll onto his back, slam a boot into the ground and right himself in one gravity defying motion.
“He did something with his foot and bam!” Erhart said. Just like that, Mackey was back on the runners. “Most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.”
Mackey lost his gloves in the fall — a tough break for even the healthiest of mushers on a day when temperatures were in the low teens. But the four-time Iditarod and four-time Yukon Quest champion suffers from Reynaud’s syndrome, a painful condition that limits blood flow to his hands and is exacerbated by the cold.
After spending Saturday’s 14-mile heat gripping the handlebars with either bare hands or with his hands stuffed into his jacket sleeves, Mackey immediately went to a friend’s pick-up truck to try and warm up. Alternating between rubbing his hands together, holding them up to the truck’s heater vent and stuffing them into a large pair of mittens, Mackey spent a half-hour in the truck trying to dull the pain.
“They stiiiiing,” he said as he sat in the cab of the truck.
Fellow mushers stopped by to wish the legendary musher well, including one who offered him a beer — which Mackey gamely gripped through his mittens. Though clearly in distress, Mackey greeted each with his customary gruff grin and wisecracking demeanor.
When asked if Saturday’s setback might force him to rethink his plan to run this year’s Iditarod, the throat cancer survivor who had surgery on his left hand as recently as November said he plans to press on.
“At this very second I would wonder why I would,” he said. “But I’ll do what I have to do.”
Mackey finished fifth in the seven-team Open Class field Saturday, more than 12 minutes behind first-day leader Kourosh Partow. The race has a $2,280 purse and pays $661.20 to the winner.
Though he’s well back of the race lead and coming off a trying day, Mackey said he plans to be back behind the handlebars Sunday for the conclusion of the two-day event.
“I can do it on my side, apparently.”
Home course advantage
Chugiak’s Partow helps groom the CDMA trails and lives nearby, so he said one of the biggest challenges was getting his dogs excited enough to race at their backyard training trails.
“Yes and no,” he said when asked if having a home trail advantage was a help Saturday. “It’s not really that exciting for them.”
Nevertheless, Partow said he was thrilled after taking a 3 minute, 38 second lead over Michael Tetzner after the first heat of the two-day event.
“It was awesome,” said Partow, who slapped the finish line banner as he and his team streaked beaneath it Saturday.
Partow finished the course in 44 minutes, 39 seconds, with Tetzner crossing the line in 48:17. Gary Markley was in third place heading into Sunday, just 16 seconds back of Tetzner.
Fun in the sun
The annual Eagle River Classic has a $6,000 total purse and included 1-dog skijor, 2-dog skijor, 4-dog, 6-dog, 8-dog and Open Class racing. Evelyn Beeter took the Day 1 lead in the 8-dog class, while multitasking Pam Schamber had the fastest Day 1 times in the 6-dog, 4-dog and 2-dog skijor events. Sabrina Hamilton had the fastest time in the 1-dog skijor class.
Race-day temperatures were below zero for the first races of the day and gradually warmed up to the low double digits by the time the Open Class racers hit the trail under blue skies at Beach Lake Park. Sprint mushers traveled to Chugiak from around the state for the Classic, the signature event of the season for the local mushing association.
Dog handler Joshua Shuman moved to Alaska three years ago to chase a dog mushing dream. He now works with Jim Lanier’s dogs, which were run Saturday by Matt Pareglio. Shuman wore a kilt and a tie die shirt for Saturday’s races — fitting for Saturday’s laid-back feel.
“We’re all out here to have fun,” he said.
Musher Carl Erhart of Tanana said trail conditions Saturday were hard and fast — ideal for sprint dog racing.
“Everybody will go even faster tomorrow,” said Erhart, who sat in third place behind Evelyn Beeter and Jerry Woods after the first day of racing.
Erhart said there’s still plenty more racing to go before the awards are handed out Sunday evening.
“It’s the biggest chess game there is.”
The event included a wide mix of teams ranging from seriously competitve sprint squads to puppy teams to lumbering but beautiful Siberians.
The diverse mix of mushers and teams is a big draw, Erhart said as he smiled in the afternoon sun.
“This is Alaska,” he said.
Racing concludes Sunday. For more, visit the Chugiak Dog Mushers Association webstie at chugiakdogmushers.com.
Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected] or call 257-4274