True Tough Guy

Sports Illustrated recently published their list of 25 Toughest Athletes.

As with most such lists, most of the attention is on who earned spot #1. I’d like to instead talk about the #2 guy.

Lance Mackey & DogsLance Mackey won both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod dogsled races. He was the first to have won both in the same year – and he repeated the results for a second year.

Both races are run by a driver, a team of 12-16 dogs, a single sled, and only the essential, required supplies required for the trip: an arctic parka, a heavy sleeping bag, an ax, snowshoes, musher food, dog food and boots for each dog’s feet to protect against sharp ice on the trail. Not only is the driver responsible for arctic survival for him/herself and the team, the driver is also required to take exemplary care of his dogs throughout the race and often runs a good part of the route when he/she wants to reduce the load or compensate for the terrain.

The Yukon Quest, held in February, is a 1,000 mile race from Fairbanks, Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. There are 10 checkpoints and four mandatory longer rest periods spaced throughout the race, including a halfway 36-hour stop, where facilities and veterinary inspections are provided. Temperatures on the trail can range from -50°F to +25°F. The dogs typically run in a 4-6h on/4-6h off pattern around the clock, with the team and driver resting on the trail during their down time. Mackey’s 2008 winning time was 10d:12h:14m – the red lantern (last place) finisher’s time was 14:04:17.

The Iditarod, run in early March, is approximately 1,150 miles, from Anchorage, Alaska to Nome, Alaska. The route alternates yearly between a northern and a southern trail, and is often warmer and can be more hazardous than the Yukon Quest. There are 22 checkpoints and three mandatory stops on the race, one of them 24 hours. Mackey’s 2008 winning time for this race was 9:11:46, and the red lantern finisher completed the race in 14:19:51.

Oh, yeah – one more thing about Mackey. He’s a cancer survivor. After the 2001 Iditarod he was diagnosed with throat cancer, and spent the year undergoing surgery and chemotherapy. He started the 2002 Iditarod but scratched, took a year off, and has been running cancer-free ever since.

This is a tough athlete.

#1 on the Sports Illustrated list was Tiger Woods. Certainly, Woods plays golf like a genius, and his physical conditioning and mental toughness in a mentally challenging sport are legendary. Could he finish a 1,000 mile arctic dogsled race? After chemotherapy? I don’t think so.

On the other hand, Mackey could probably finish 4 x 18 hole rounds of golf – not necessarily with any kind of great score, but it’s do-able. My bet is he wouldn’t want to, though. No dogs are allowed on the golf course.

9 Responses to “True Tough Guy”

  1. Tania Says:

    He sooooo should have got #1.

    No salivary glands. The guy has no salivary glands and he competes in an extremely physically demanding sport. I’d like to see Tiger holding it together after 8 days on the trail spending hours at a time with only a few dogs and the occasional bit of wildlife ambling around.

    Not that I’m biased or anything. Tiger is totally a competitor, and he admits he doesn’t play to win, he plays to dominate and crush. But still… Lance has my vote for #1.

  2. Nathan Says:

    I think it’s a silly list. Apples and Oranges and Kumquats. No debating the toughness of everyone on the list, but I really think ranking them is a useless exercise. Every one of them trains relentlessly to excel at their chosen sport and comparing them is something of a disservice to all of them.

    And BTW, I know I’d never be a musher because, 1.) I’ve done it and can’t go more than about 15 minutes and 2.) I need a nap after 18 holes of golf. (The nap has nothing to do at all with the beer(s) consumed on the course. Nothing, I say!)

  3. Jeri Says:

    Tania, I hadn’t even thought of that. I’d imagine breathing air at 40 F below would be more hazardous if you had no saliva in your mouth!

    Nathan, you’re probably right. How can you compare the toughness of a marathon racer with the toughness of a boxer? It’s a totally different thing. I need a nap after 18 holes of golf too, mostly because I’ve walked about 20 miles trying to find my ball.

  4. Bryan Says:

    I agree with the apples and oranges comment. The list is silly. “Hardest to compete with” I think would be a better list. Or maybe “most competitive”, a measure Tiger surely would be high on the list for. But “toughest”? How can a person in a non-contact sport be the “toughest”? On the other hand, is a boxer used to being hit in the head really “tough”?

  5. Nathan Says:

    Well boxers are chewier

  6. Bryan Says:

    Only the lighter weight classes. The bigger guys are nicely marbled. :-)

  7. Nathan Says:


  8. Beast Mom Says:

    I don’t think of golfers as “tough”. That word just doesn’t work for me.

    When I hear “tough”, I think of high contact sports, harsh conditions to endure, or serious levels of post-game pain/recovery that they have to get through and still play well the next day in spite of that. I think of NFL players who have to sit in nightly ice baths, cyclists riding 25 days in a row up the highest mountains in France, rugby crazies who play with no pads, etc. But I don’t think of golf.

    The term “mentally tough” fits golf very well however.

    I do agree w/ the commenter above that it’s sort of a futile list and compares that which is not reasonably comparable. I admire Tiger as an athlete, but not for the same reasons I admired Walter Payton.


  9. Jeri Says:

    Nathan, Bryan: snort indeed.

    BM, I agree with you. There’s a difference between mentally tough and physically tough. Shoot, a computer programmer, an author, an engineer are mentally tough!