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The Other Lance

As I write this, an epic sports drama of unprecidented historical proportion — and I use those words judiciously — is playing out in a tiny village in the far northwest corner of Alaska.

In a community hall at the White Mountain checkpoint, Lance Mackey is within striking distance of winning the 2007 Iditarod.

That is the One Thousand Mile sled dog race everyone has heard about. Mackey is the musher no one in the lower 48 who doesn't pay attention to the sport of marathon sled dog racing has ever heard about. This is not just another routine tale of endurance against the odds that any Idiarod win must be. Here is a sport where just one of the dangers is having your corneas freeze during the nearly two weeks you are at odds with the terrain and the environment.

Getting it done is remarkable.

Winning is heroic.

But what Mackey is poised to achieve as he sleeps off the mandatory 8 hour rest period is truly epic.

You see, less than a month ago, Lance Mackey and these same dogs won the Yukon Quest 1000 Mile International Sled Dog race from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory to Fairbanks, Alaska. The Yukon Quest is the other One Thousand Mile sled dog race—the one that no one has heard about. The Quest was designed at the onset to be 'old school' and it is.  Fewer checkpoints.  Three mountain ranges.  A maze to get lost in south of Dawson.  The Iditarod may very well be one hell of a sled-dog race, but it's no Yukon Quest.  And no one has ever run a team to first place in both in the same season, barely a month apart.

It is like (although much more than) running back-to-back Marathons over the weekend.

And that leads to the remarkable situation that will play out sometime this evening. Tonight, Mackey is on the frozen verge of marathon distance sled dog racing super-stardom. If he makes it to Nome before Paul Gebhardt, he will have won the Quest and the Iditarod in the same year and the sport will never be the same.

There is more at work here than some veteran racers having problems early in the race and a guy no one talks a lot about on the Outdoor Channel getting a lucky break.

No, no, no.

This one's been coming for a long time now. It's been coming from the gray tunnel of history, as inevitable as a freight train and as undetected as the stealth bomber.

You see, in 1978, Lance's dad Dick posted a legendary Iditarod win by one second in a harrowing foot race down the main street of Nome against Rick Swenson. It stands to this day as the closest finish ever in an Iditarod. Mackey's time was 14 days, 18 hours, 52 minutes and 24 seconds. The winner was decided by the nose of the lead dog across the finish line. It was his 6th attempt and he happened to be wearing bib number 13. Make a note of that.

In 1983 Mackey's brother Rick won the Iditarod, becoming the second half of the first father-son pair to both win the Iditarod. Coincidentally—well, possibly so—he did it on his 6th attempt--also wearing bib number 13. Begin to see a pattern?

Lance has been living the family tradition for all of his life, give or take a run with cancer, and it is clear that this season seems to be the one he's been building to achieve.

You can see a pattern emerging if you look at his record in the Yukon Quest that makes his 'sudden' emergence in this year's Iditarod--where media discussion is centered around the usual suspects, Buser, King, Swingley, Seavey and perennial favorites like DeeDee Jonrowe --seem less a surprise than the logical conclusion.

Mackey won the Yukon Quest -- a thousand miles between Whitehorse, Yukon and Fairbanks, Alaska on his rookie entry in 2005.

He won it again last year when a perfect storm trapped mushers on Eagle Summit, forcing an unprecedented airlift rescue effort and bad trail conditions forced the race course to double back across the difficult black mountains to end in Dawson. That race can readily be called the toughest sled dog race ever run.

For Lance Mackey, it was the seasoning, the tempering of the steel.  The ultimate training run for the ultimate goal:  An 'I can win exactly when I intend to' victory in the Iditarod.

He won the Yukon Quest again this year, equaling the record of three consecutive wins set by Austrian Hans Gatt and setting the new course speed record.

And now Mackey is poised to win both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod in the same year, an achievement that has never been accomplished in the history of the sport.

By now, you've guessed it, or I have not made the specifics of Makey's intent entirely clear:

This is Lance's 6th 'attempt' to win the Iditarod and he is wearing bib number 13. This is no coincidence. Mackey camped out in order to be certain to be the first to sign up so that he could get his pick of bib numbers.

And it is no piece of random happenstance that he is in the lead. This is laser precision in a sport with the size and chaos of a hurricane. The race has been pure Lance Mackey planning, skill and execution so far.

"As a kid, I had a dream, a vision of winning the Iditarod, and this year's race was like watching that dream play out in a real-time movie," he is reported as saying in a Cabela's website interview. "Searlie, Martin, Jeff - they all dream of perfection. That's what this trip has been. Perfect."

And a day from now, if Mackey does indeed win, it will be the most conceptually perfect victory in the annals of sport.  Any sport. In history.

There has been from the onset an air of destiny about Mackey's entry into the Iditarod this year--as if a win on this particular race, this particular year, would be the only acceptable result of so much tangential circumstance. The win would have to be considered part of a larger context outside the enormity of the race itself.

But a one thousand miles of Alaska by dog sled is unimaginably rigorous,  fraught with peril and nothing is certain until it is accomplished. So we waited and hoped for the best and worried when we read he had broken a runner early and took heart when he got to the namesake ghost town checkpoint of Iditarod ahead of the field. And we cheered with wild fist pumps when the mandatory rest periods were all taken and he emerged as the contender to beat. That is Lance's M.O.  Know the course, know the competition, pace yourself, play chess — then emerge at the late stage to be the contender to beat.
I'm guessing he could have won the Iditarod twice by now had he wanted to.  But he was laying back, pacing himself, waiting for the perfect win.

For those who live with the conviction of their desire there comes a moment when everything that has already transpired adds up to a culmination and the life will have to be considered from that moment forward in some sense complete. For Charlie Hilliard it was France in '72 and the torque roll in the 4 minute free. For John Elway it was winning the Super Bowl on the last game of his career. For Lance Mackey, that moment will be when he crosses the finish line in Nome.

Mackey is camped at White mountain, only a checkpoint away from the finish line in Nome. The last leg is similar to that of the Tour de France, where the leader going into the final stage is more or less accorded the win. After the mandatory 8 hour rest Makey should cruise the remaining 77 miles into Nome--and the history book.

In exactly the right place in that book.

Still, it's the Arctic in March and Lance is down to 11 dogs from the 16 that he started with. Last year he got lost on his way to the finish line in Dawson. What Yogi said about baseball goes for mushing, as well.

It ain't over 'till it's over.

So veteran race watchers and Lance fans are on the edge of their seat with suspense.

You can cut the drama with a knife.

All of these dogs raced the Quest and 10 of the 11 he is still running finished the Quest. Thus virtually the entire team that will cross the finish line in Nome is composed of current Yukon Quest champions.

Together, they are poised to go down as the best single season team in the history of the sport. And Lance's name will be added to the list of usual Iditarod suspects -- the mushers to beat.

For anyone who has had the chance to meet him, the cliche is true--it simply could not happen to a nicer guy.

The lanky Lance Mackey is just about to become an overnight sensation.

You heard it here first.