Lance Mackey likes to joke that he was mushing before he was born.

“But in all seriousness, my mom was seven-months pregnant, mushing the Women’s Invitational with me,” he said.

Mackey’s home outside of Fairbanks is filled with photos and newspaper articles related to mushing, proof of a long history with the Iditarod. His dad, Dick Mackey won the Iditarod in 1978 in a dramatic photo finish.

Lance Mackey grew up with dog chores as part of the daily routine.

“We didn’t have a normal upbringing,” he said. “We’d get home from school, hook up a dog team and go for a run.”

But by the time Lance Mackey was 17, he wanted something, anything else. He would spend the next 13 years on a fishing boat. Drugs and alcohol were a big part of his life at the time.

“I ruined a pretty good relationship with both of my parents, my dad especially, just, embarrassment,” he said. “There was something in me that wanted to rebuild that, or hear, ‘Good job, I’m proud of you.'”

Lance Mackey began building a dog team and signed up for the Iditarod in 2001. He finished in 36th place.

“And to this day, it’s one of the clearest memories in my head, getting to the finish line and seeing my parents in tears, tears of joy,” he recalled. “Not embarrassment, proud. It was the one thing I’ve tried to accomplish every year since then.”

But what his family did not know at the time was that a serious risk to his life was slowly growing. That very same year, Lance Mackey was diagnosed with throat cancer, stage four.

“I remember the doctor telling me, if you actually live through this it will be a miracle, and if that miracle happens you will never race dogs again.” It wasn’t the kind of news Lance Mackey wanted to hear. “I got an attitude — here is this guy who has my life in the palm of his hands and he’s going to tell me what I can and can’t do. If I live? I’ll be the judge of that.”

Lance Mackey would endure five days a week in radiation treatment and months in the hospital. That same year, he ran the Iditarod.

“I left the line in 2002 with a team that was not trained, and a feeding tube and pure determination,” he said. He made it to Ophir, about halfway, before scratching. It would be the only time he would quit. “Those months in the hospital made me more mentally strong then anything I’ve ever done or ever will do.”

His team became faster, stronger. He went on to win the Iditarod in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Now he’s training for another win. He said he’s doing it because it’s what he wants to do, and in a way, to pay back his dogs for what they gave him.

“They saved my life in many ways and changed my life, and I’m still trying to pay them back.”