Feature

Lance Mackey: The world’s toughest athlete

Mackey has overcome a host of ills to win the 1,161-mile Iditarod dog-sled race a record four years running.

Lance Mackey is an unlikely athlete, said Seth Wickersham in ESPN the Magazine. The frail 5-foot-9, 180-pound Mackey is a walking collection of wounds: His neck and face are scarred, his left index finger is missing, his ears and toes are damaged by frostbite, and he has no salivary glands. Yet he’s overcome all that and more to win the 1,161-mile Iditarod dog-sled race a record four years running. “I fake it pretty good,” says the 40-year-old. “But my body is a wreck.”

During his first Iditarod, in 2001, he raced for thousands of miles in subfreezing temperatures with what he thought was a toothache but was actually a malignant tumor the size of a softball in his throat. He still finished the race, but cancer treatments would take his salivary glands, several teeth, and pieces of his throat. His doctors urged him to give up dog sledding, but Mackey was defiant. “One of my reasons for living has always been, ‘Don’t tell me I can’t,’” he says. “From that time in the hospital, my goal was to defy anybody who said ‘can’t.’”

After years of frozen punishment, his entire body aches, and he thinks the trail will eventually get him. That would suit him just fine. “I can pretend to be so tough only for so long.”

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