ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - When Lance Mackey looks around at his life now, he has to pinch himself. Then he thanks his dogs.
The winner of four consecutive Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Races credits his dogs for bringing him across the finish line in Nome first and handing him fame and fortune Alaska-style.
``I can't believe where we have come from in this short amount of time and it is all because of the dogs,'' Mackey said. ``You know, it is a little bit humbling. I have to just sit back and pinch myself.''
Mackey said he has gone from ``living in a shack to living in a mansion basically'' since his first Iditarod win in 2007, followed up with victories in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
He used to drive a $500 truck. He worried about paying bills.
But when he looks around his Fairbanks home now, he can barely believe what he sees.
``Years ago I didn't have a dollar,'' he said. ``What we have going on today is a 5,000-square-foot house, I have a yard full of brand new vehicles, the one new truck sitting in the corner in the snow bank, maybe a couple of thousand miles on it because I don't have to drive it.''
Mackey has a lot of shiny new trucks. For coming in first, his winnings each year have included a new Dodge truck. One year, he traded the truck in for a muscle car.
He has 100 dogs in his yard and a cabin for his dog handlers.
``It has all been a result of racing dogs. I can't help but be proud of that,'' said Mackey, whose bid for a fifth consecutive win begins this weekend.
The world's longest sled dog race at 1,150 miles, the Iditarod begins Saturday in Anchorage with the ceremonial start, an occasion for fans to meet their favorite mushers and get autographs before the dog teams are taken for a boisterous sprint across town.
The serious mushing begins Sunday at the restart in Willow, north of Anchorage. Race officials report that this year's trail is one of the best in years with a lot of snow cover. That could mean a fast race. It typically takes the winner eight or nine days to reach Nome.
Mackey has endeared himself to Alaskans with his ``nobody is more surprised than me'' attitude about his four Iditarod wins, often describing his success as being a mixture of great dogs, risk-taking and luck.
If that's true, Mackey needs to spend more time in Vegas.
Iditarod musher Aliy Zirkle said when she arrived at the checkpoint in Golovin last year, behind Mackey, she stopped to sign autograph books for about 10 school children. Their books contained only one other name - Lance Mackey. Some even had their parkas signed by him.
``It is his honest self,'' said Zirkle, who finished 16th last year.
Advanced throat cancer diagnosed in 2001 almost killed Mackey's Iditarod dream. But he underwent surgery and radiation that left him without salivary glands and impaired circulation in his hands and feet. He took a few years off to regroup, came back and eventually won the Iditarod, just like his father, Dick, in 1978 and brother, Rick, in 1983.
He's dominated the race ever since.
Mackey does not dwell on what he's lost, and he's not resting on his laurels. He's driving ahead, just like always. He wants a fifth Iditarod win more than any other.
``I am as hungry as I have ever been,'' he said.
Physically, the 40-year-old musher who many believe is the best the sport has ever seen, describes himself as ``a beat up mess,'' needing a knee to be replaced in the worst way. But he's putting the surgery off because he's ``tired of being cut on.''
``I am playing Mr. Tough Guy for a couple of more years,'' he said.
Mackey said his relationship with his dogs is the No. 1 factor for his success. He spends a lot of time with them. They have an open invitation to come in his house whenever they want and can even sleep on his bed if they like.
``A lot of people just don't get to know their dogs and understand them the way I do,'' he said. ``I know more about them dogs than I know about myself.''
Mackey's 2011 team is unproven compared to previous years, but he thinks the dogs are capable of winning the Iditarod, describing them as fun, energetic and fast.
Seven of the 16 dogs have been to Nome before.
``I know I have seven dogs that will go to the end of the earth for me,'' Mackey said.