The Top 13 teams in the 2017 Iditarod Sled Dog Race have now passed under the burled arch in Front St in Nome, after 979 miles of racing in very cold temperatures that, however, made for a good trail.
1. Mitch Seavey in 8d 3h 40m 13s RECORD
2. Dallas Seavey
3. Nicolas Petit
4. Joar Leifseth Ulsom
5. Jessie Royer
6. Wade Marrs
7. Ray Redington Jr
8. Aliy Zirkle
9. Peter Kaiser
10. Paul Gebhardt
11. Jeff King
12. Ramey Smyth
13. Michelle Phillips
Besides shattering his son Dallas Seavey’s speed record from last year, Mitch Seavey, who was already the oldest man at 53 to win the Iditarod the last time he won, is again the oldest man at 57 to win. And no doubt he’ll be back next year to try for a fourth victory to match Dallas’s four…The first 9 mushers all brought their teams home under the magic 9 days, and the tenth, Paul Gebhart, was only 6 seconds over the 9 day mark.
The last Iditarod champion whose name isn’t Seavey was John Baker in 2011, and his time was 8d 18h 46m 39s. Until the start of this Iditarod, the club of sub-9 day mushers added up to 13, and it isn’t much larger today because the usual over-achievers are also the front runners this year.
[right] The beautiful and
talented Jessie Royer
Most years I make up the list of teams we (readers of my novel IDITAROD, Facebook friends) will follow by choosing a few extremely popular mushers, a few fast mushers, a beautiful musher or two (only checking to see if you are awake!), and someone worthwhile from the rear of the field. Before you ask, I don’t consciously include women (or Norwegians for that matter), though the Iditarod is notable for women running on equal terms with men, and for the large number of women who do enter, and sometimes win. By the time I’ve included popular and fast mushers, I usually have selected several women anyway — and a Norwegians or two as well!Aliy Zirkle mushing in characteristically exuberant style.
Who can resist adding her to a shortlist?
For 2017 before the race started I chose the mushers I thought would be in the top ten. That turned out to be the two Seaveys, Mitch and Dallas; three young guns, Petit, Marrs and Kaiser; two women, Royer and Zirkle; two Norwegians, Ulsom and Johannessen; and the perennial top-ten runner and multiple champion Jeff King.Of those King was 11th and Johannessen 16th. Maybe next year.So, out of my choices, eight of “my” ten were in the actual top ten. I should have put on some money.
[L to R, T to B] Here are my eight out of ten winners, in order of finishing: Mitch Seavey, Dallas Seavey, Nicolas Petit, Joar Leifseth Ulsom, Jessie Royer, Wade Marrs, [Ray Redington Jr, not shown, was 7th], Aliy Zirkle, Peter Kaiser, [Paul Gebhardt, not shown, was 10th]
I also forecast the winner: “…I’d advise [some notional bookmaker] to shorten the odds on a Seavey win, putting the chances of another Seavey win at near enough even-steven, maybe 45-55.” You can read my logic here.Thank you for joining me for an exciting ride.
Extraordinary detail from the now-famous watercolor cover painting by Gino D’Achille commissioned by Grafton for the original paperback edition of Iditarod a Novel of the Greatest Race on Earth. When there was talk of changing the cover illustration for the CoolMain 20th Anniversary Edition, the D’Achille painting was retained to avoid a revolt of readers who believe it encapsulates the story.
Articles about the 2017 Iditarod from most recent to earliest:
The famous 1000 mile Iditarod Sled Dog Race across Alaska is one of the few top sports in which women compete as equals. There is no separate entry list for women. They must compete with some of the hardest men, and definitely the toughest terrain, anywhere in the world. But in Alaska men are men, and women can win the Iditarod, and have won the Iditatod.
So only rookies are surprised to see three women in the Iditarod top ten before White Mountain, where all teams must take a mandatory 8 hour break to rest the dogs for the 77 mile sprint to the victory arch over Front Street in Nome.
Left to right: Jessie Royer looks fairly safe in 6th. Aliy Zirkle in 8th may come under pressure from Peter Kaiser. Michelle Phillips in 10th also looks relatively safe.
Exactly. Mitch Seavey is the only other musher besides Dallas to win an Iditarod since 2011, and he has two second places too in these last years. Besides the fact that anyone can see that Mitch is running up front, this history makes Mitch his son Dallas’ main competitor.
Also, on the coast, as they close in on White Mountain, the race reaches a critical stage.
Coming off the Yukon, for the first time, fans and competing mushers too can compare the mushers at the front of the race directly, even-steven, without having to make complicated mathematical calculations, fraught with assumptions, to adjust for starting differentials between teams and whether the team had taken the mandatory 24 hour and first 8 hour stops. Now we can directly consider the order on the trail to be the race order, and to be the result of strategy and tactics of when to run and when to rest, and dog-feeding breaks.
The first musher to check into White Mountain with a bit of clear space behind him has an advantage because after the mandatory break of 8 hours at White Mountain to rest the dogs, the end of the race under the arch in Front Street, Nome, is only 77 miles away (55 miles to Safety, then 22 miles to the winner’s laurels — maps here), less than an easy day’s mushing for the hardened Iditarod competitors.
If the weather doesn’t interfere. In 2015 Jeff King and his dogs were blown off the trail. After Jeff’s mishap, Aliy Zirkle sheltered in the checkpoint to protect her team for a few minutes too long and it cost her the championship she so nearly inherited from front-runner Jeff King. Dallas Seavey, visibly worn out, won by a few minutes after nearly a thousand miles — because he judged the end of the storm slightly more accurately and kept going.
And if your dog team doesn’t lie down and refuse to run. Something else that even many fans of the Iditarod don’t know is that dogs are probably the only animal you can’t work to death. If dogs decide you’re working them too hard, or the conditions are to dangerous to run, they will lie down in the traces and refuse to proceed. It has happened out there on the ice of the Norton Sound to top mushers (1), it could happen again, it will happen again.
(1) I don’t give examples by naming the mushers it happened to because there no suspicion whatsoever that their dogs went on strike because they were maltreating them. Their dogs just turned out to be smarter than they were, which is a common condition in a sport where there are reins, no whips, nothing but the musher’s voice to control the sled dogs. Dogs work for the joy of running, for the love of their owner, not because of any other reason.
The Iditarod Trail Committee publishes race standings, but until the mushers check in at White Mountain, those are just the order on the trail. The only true comparison is between mushers who have taken the 24 hour mandatory break and have both either taken or not taken the mandatory 8 hour break.
The real leader can be, and usually is, someone else.
Aliy Zirkle. Photo by Mike Criss.
If you want to know who truly leads the Iditarod, you must allow for three factors:
Relative position on the trail. One musher is ahead of another musher by so many minutes at a checkpoint, and that’s official, or unofficially on the trail a distance that can be measured by GPS responder positions and converted to a time differential by reference to known average speed.
Mandatory stops. There are three mandatory long stops to rest the dogs, in addition to rest and feeding stops the musher makes at his/her discretion. The 24 hour stop can be taken anywhere except White Mountain and Nome, because none of the mandatory stops can be combined and at Nome the race ends. Practically, almost everyone takes the 24 hour stop before descending the Kaltag Portage to the Bering Sea coast. The first of the mandatory 8 hour stops must be taken on the Yukon (including Shageluk). The second mandatory 8 hour stop must be taken at White Mountain, from where it is a sprint to Nome.
Relative order at the start. Mushers start the race at two minute intervals. These differentials are adjusted at the 24 hour mandatory stop. So a musher who starts ten places ahead of another musher and is now three places and five minutes ahead leaving a checkpoint is in fact 20-5 = 15 minutes behind. After both have taken the Yukon 8 hours and the 24 hours, they will be even-steven, and on-the trail differentials will be true differentials. The checking-in order at White Mountain is also a true differential.
Example. Even a little way into the race, getting an answer isn’t that simple. Take this incident of mushers leaving a checkpoint, Musher A one hour before Musher B. Musher A carries bib number 32 and has served his Yukon 8 hours but not his 24 hours mandatory break to rest the dogs. Musher B carries bib number 2 (there is no No 1 which is reserved for the shade of Leonhard Seppala) has served her 24 hours but not her 8 hours on the Yukon.
Question: How far is Musher B, 1 hour behind on the trail, actually in front of Musher A in real standings?
Answer: Musher B is clearly ahead by the difference between their mandatory breaks still to be taken, 24 – 8 = 16 hours, less the hour Musher A is ahead out of the checkpoint, so 15 hours, with the starting differential still to be calculated. (Here’s where most people give up. Don’t. It gets easier.) Note that her time has been adjusted for starting differential to every musher in the race, including his, all the way to the back because, while we speak loosely of “24 hours”, in fact her break was 26h20m. When he takes his 24 hour break, two minutes for his advantage to each of the 40 mushers behind him will be added on, 1h20m altogether, so the total Musher B will be ahead after she finishes her 8 hour Yukon break and Musher A finishes his 24 hour break is 24 – 8 -1 + 1h20m = 16h20.
From the IDITAROD RULES:
“Rule 13 — Mandatory Stops: A musher must personally sign in and out to start and complete all mandatory stops.
“Twenty Four-Hour Stop: A musher must take one mandatory twenty-four (24) hour stop during the race. The twenty-four (24) hour stop may be taken at the musher’s option at a time most beneficial to the dogs. The starting differential will be adjusted during each team’s twenty-four (24) hour stop. It is the musher’s responsibility to remain for the entire twenty-four (24) hour period plus starting differential. The ITC will give each musher the required time information prior to leaving the starting line.
“Eight Hour Mandatory Stops: In addition to the mandatory twenty-four (24) hour stop, a musher must take one eight (8) hour stop on the Yukon River, including Shageluk in odd numbered years, and one eight (8) hour stop at White Mountain.
We concluded that what decides the outcome among all these hard men and women is a small quantum of luck, the weather — and experience.
Luck and the weather are, by definition, outside of the mushers’ control. That leaves experience.
We’re not talking about skill or gritty commitment here. For practical purposes all the possible winners are equally skilled and equally gritty as competitors.
In most sports, what predicts the likelihood of success is — previous success. The question is choosing the right kind of success, because not every kind of success defines an overall winner.
What predicts an Iditarod winner more certainly than anything else is top ten finishes, preferably recent top ten finishes. Sure, a rookie can come along and temporarily upset the rule, as Robert Sorlie did with a rookie win earlier in this century; but Sorlie was a musher’s musher, a racer with huge depth of experience of winning in Scandinavia. His “rookie” status was artificial, to say the least.
So here we go.
Nearest thing to a sure thing?
Dallas Seavey, with a side bet on his dad, Mitch Seavey. Been there, done that. There are more interesting questions to answer.
An upset winner?
I was very impressed with Jessie Royer’s run into fourth place in 2015, a bad year for mushers; she’s 40, in her prime as a musher, with experienced dogs she rested eight hours for every five they ran in the Yukon Quest! Those pups are just warmed up and raring to go. Melinda Shore also picks Jessie for an upset.
[I wrote this article before the race, and I publish it unchanged on the evening of the second day of the actual race as most of the mushers are on the trail from Tenana to Ruby. Jessie lies 11th on the road, but because she has not taken the mandatory 8 hours to rest the dogs yet, Martin Buser, who has, while behind her on the trail, is in fact about 7h15 ahead of her (including the starting differential adjustment), and the same applies to all the mushers who’ve served the 8-hour break as far back as Dave Branholm currently 39th on the trail.
All the same, I publish the article as I wrote it. You have to take your chances and I’m betting Jessie knows what she’s doing putting off that mandatory break to keep up with the real contenders. It’s a lesson in how tricky it is for the mushers on the trail, who don’t have even a fraction of the information you and I have to hand.]
Joar Leifseth Ulsom is 29, the right age to make his mark, and has a stunning record of four top-7 finishes in four Iditarod starts. He’s the most promising runner in the race, but we’d like to see him deliver a credible threat to the mushers in front, and soon, or he’ll be perceived as a technically competent and athletic competitor who lacks the killer instinct a top athlete must possess.
The usual top-ten suspects, ex-champions, habitual front-runners, and another Norwegian
These all finished under 9 hours last year, as of course did both Seaveys and Ulsom, a distinction shared by only 13 mushers (including those named here) in the entire history of the Iditarod. In the order in which they finished in 2016:
From the top, left to right, more top ten finishers who in 2016 crossed under the arch in Front Street, Nome, under 9 hours: Aliy Zirkle — a multiple runner-up, Wade Marrs, Peter Kaiser, Nicholas Petit — three young lions who everyone expects sooner or later to be champions, and Ralph Johannessen — current Norwegian champion. Plus Jeff King, a four-time champion — only 46 seconds north of nine hours!
This is as frightening a collection of smiling hard cases as any defending Iditarod champion would rather not meet on the trail.
Of these, Wade Marrs [just checking into Ruby as I post this!], who’s been improving radically year by year, is a dark horse whose time could arrive at any moment.
And Nicholas Petit has won several middle-distance races this season to give his team confidence. Any edge is worth having when you go up against competitors riding high for five years already.
Expect to see most of these in the top ten, or challenging for the win.
This is basically the same list as Jake Berkowitz published in the Alaska Dispatch News, and for the same reasons. Berkowitz has a top ten finish in the Iditarod himself, and a bunch of mushing awards, so he’s a talent spotter who merits respect. Berkowitz includes another strong finisher in his list:
“Richie Diehl: The only musher on this list who has never been in the Top 10, Diehl’s best Iditarod was last year’s 12th-place finish. But Diehl had another strong performance in this year’s Kuskokwim 300, surging in the second half and taking third. Look for him to come on strong along the Bering Sea Coast.”
What with the weather this year, I think Berkowitz is right: a fast finish could be the making of a surprise winner.
[Part 1 of 2. Tomorrow: Who can upset the Seavey applecart?]
The Seaveys have won the last five Iditarod Sled Dog Races, father Mitch once in 2013, son Dallas four times, including a hat-trick in the last three years.
Dallas (left) was the youngest ever winner in 2012, and holds the record for the fastest time, 8d11h20m16s.
Mitch (right), who has a second win in 2004, was also second to Dallas in both 2015 and 2016, and third in 2014.
On this record, Mitch is his son’s strongest competitor.
Reflect on this: The last winner who isn’t a Seavey was John Baker in 2011, a lifetime past in a race this difficult, dangerous and uncertain.
Now, if this were a race in civilization, say a sprint or even an endurance race in a stadium before a crowd, a bet with any bookie in his right mind on a victory for either Dallas or Mitch would be odds-on (you have to bet more than the maximum you can win).
But the Iditarod is a thousand miles of running behind a dogsled across icy Alaska, within spitting distance of the Arctic Circle.
Anyway, besides these statistical odds in favor of one of the Seaveys, there are statistical odds against them.
Those who fancy Dallas Seavey for another victory this year, may want to consider that despite killer competitors like Susan Butcher, Martin Buser, Lance Mackey, Doug Swingley and Jeff King trying hard and consistently, a fifth victory has eluded all but one man, the legendary Rick Swenson.
The statistical odds against Mitch is that he is already the oldest man to win. On the other hand, he is tough and experienced, and his team is experienced and known to be tough, not afraid of cold and violent weather.
The biggest consideration, given couple of dozen equally hard men and women who’d dearly love to stop the Seavey train of victories, is again, as it is every year, the weather. In 2015 Dallas came from behind to grab a victory from Aliy Zirkle in violent weather that stopped her, and she had inherited the lead when the wind blew Jeff King and his team right off the trail.We can say Dallas is a gritty competitor who never stops racing until the finish line, as we saw in 2015. We can say Dallas got lucky. We can say the weather is the same for everyone. We can say two strong competitors, Jeff King and Aliy Zirkle, were put off their stroke when last year they and their dogs were assaulted by a drunk snowmobiler. We can say all of these things.
It’s all on the one hand, and the other hand: over such a distance, under such conditions, with athletes so equally honed and determined, certainty is hard come by. So, having given you all the information to decide for yourself that, realistically, the chances of a Seavey are one in five, what would I advise a bookie to do?
Actually, I’d advise him to shorten the odds on a Seavey win, putting the chances of another Seavey win at near enough even-steven, maybe 45-55. Why?
Dogs and man mushing in perfect athletic harmony:
Dallas Seavey and his team racing across the Alaskan tundra.
Photo courtesy of Loren Holmes/Alaska Dispatch News
Well, there’s such a thing as being on a roll, and riding your luck, and the Seaveys are on a roll and have plenty of experience of riding their luck in atrociously adverse weather, of which there is a better than average chance on the Iditarod trail this year.
Also, Dallas is the most thoughtful Iditarod champion ever, as witness his carbon shed with space for carrying four dogs, and arrangements for cooking their food on the run, so that Dallas can get more time to rest at stops. Dallas isn’t an incidental racer, he lives and breathes the Iditarod year-round.
Put me down for ten bucks on Dallas making it four victories in a row, five in all.
[Part 1 of 2. Tomorrow: Who can upset the Seavey applecart?]
Actually, the first thing the Iditarod Sled Dog Race watcher needs is enough sleep, especially towards the end, when it can get very tense whether your favorite starts the compulsory 8-hour rest close enough to the front runners to catch them on the short final stretch to Nome. Newcomers to this tense race are then tempted to wait out the layover; experienced watchers catch some sleep the minute the first three or four mushers are in, because they know you don’t want to miss a moment of that last sprint, on which Dallas Seavey famously has come from hours behind to win from Aliy Zirkle. It could happen again, it could even happen to Dallas. (Don’t bet the house on that last wild speculation, though.)
Next you need plenty of nutritious snack food and hydration because you won’t have time to cook anything demanding, and your family will soon be glued to the screen next to you.
Information without which you can’t follow the Iditarod
These, and only these, are pages of essential information you should keep open on your computer screen, neatly cascaded for instant reference. Other pages you open you should close instantly you finish with them, or soon you will drown in inessential information, and you’ll miss crucial bits of the race because you couldn’t find the right page.
First, the page that will be your action control center. This is where the selected most relevant news arrives hot and ready to your screen.
Next you need to know when it happens, so here’s Alaskan clock you can scale to the space available on your screen by simply dragging the bottom right hand corner.
You also need to know who it happens to, so here’s a list of the usual suspects, complete with mug shots; they’ll look worse towards the end of the race.
Of course, the question of why it happens to her will strike you with great force, and the answer is often Alaska’s perfectly predictable weather: it will turn lethally nasty at unpredictable times.
In the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race at this point the musher runs along rolling low wooded hills and ridges, really quite pleasant, then the dog team crests one last forested ridge and enters the alien hell of the Farewell Burn. This is the grim remnant of Alaska’s largest forest fire, a million and a half acres burning in 1978, through which the race runs for 40 miles. Without trees, the sightlines are forever, and at night one can see the single light of the radar tower on the peak of Tatalina Mountain, near McGrath, a couple of days away by dogsled, seeming to stay eternally unreachable even at racing sled dog speed. While in it, the Farewell Burn seems to continue forever, without hope, like Purgatory. It is the all-too-real proof that after three days among the trees the Spirit of the Forest, Wendigo, drives men mad.
Andre Jute: The Farewell Burn, Alaska,
an Iditarod Trail painting, acrylic on card, 320x230mm, 2016
I made two of these paintings, mirror images, because I intend to use them as endplates for a sketchbook that I’m binding. The sketchbook is 300gr cotton watercolor paper, which is why I made the painting in acrylic. For further waterproofing I’ll also varnish both the front and the back of the cardstock before glueing it in.
Nash, one of Jeff King’s sled dogs, was killed by a drunken snowmobiler during the 2016 Iditarod. Here I’ve imagined the start of a sort of Iditarod Sled Dogs’ Mount Rushmore, with Nash just emerging from the raw rock as its first inhabitant. And didn’t one of the Colonel’s pound-find Iditarod dogs go to Mass with the Pope? It’s not such a bizarre idea at all!
2016 IDITAROD TRAIL SLED DOG RACE RESULT
1 Dallas Seavey, new record of 8d 11h 20m 16s
2 Mitch Seavey
3 Aliy Zirkle
4 Wade Marrs
5 Peter Kaiser
6 Joar Leifseth Ulsom
Congratulations all round!
A few points are worth making. This year I chose a likely top ten before the race. Five of the six finishers so far are in my chosen top ten. This isn’t magic.
The Iditarod is only for the hardest, most experienced and most persistent mushers. Even the presently dominant Dallas Seavey took ten years to become an “overnight star”, and before that he was in the Junior Iditarod, and before that he grew up in the mushing household of Mitch Seavey, another multiple champion, who this year came second and at stages looked like a possible winner. In short, Dallas has been preparing all his life to take a shot at the Iditarod championship. So what is surprising isn’t that experience counts for so much but that so many outsiders (Butcher, King, to name just two) came and conquered.
The two photographs of Aliy Zirkle (courtesy of the excellent Alaska Dispatch News) demonstrate my other point as well as words can. First the public relations shot: Doesn’t it just look like a carefree camping holiday, albeit a bit extended at a 1000 miles? And then the hard reality: Running a thousand miles behind a dog-sled in sub-zero temperatures, eight and a half days over a thousand miles to be even in contention. After subtracting 40 hours of mandatory rest for the dogs, that’s nearly 150 miles per day average including all other feeding and rest stops.
Dallas Seavey, into White Mountain at 0948, has left a wake-up call for 1430. He can leave, his mandatory 8hr rest expired, at 1748. Mitch Seavey, in at 1027, and Brent Sass, in at 1140, will be 39m and 1h52m behind him when they exit White Mountain.
Aliy Zirkle, out of Elim at 0924, is out of it unless there is an upset ahead of her. At this stage it looks like the rest of the top ten will be made up of Marrs, Kaiser, Leiftseth Ulsom, Burmeister, Petit, Johannessen, with King, Sorlie, Phillips, Beals and Baker pressing for a place, a hard-fought second tier.
At the head of the field, Mitch Seavey and Brent Sass have 77 miles to make up 39m and 112m respectively. But Dallas Seavey has only 9 dogs left, whereas Mitch has 12 and Brent has 13. Weather conditions, especially the wind, may count for as much as Dallas’s youth and strength, or so Mitch will hope. Brent must hope for an upset.
In his record year of 2014 Dallas Seavey left Shaktoolik on the Sunday morning at 1028. This year he left at 1027. That record year he left Shaktoolik with 13 dogs. This year he has 9. He says he likes a light team for a fast end run. However that may be, other top contenders, spotting a possible chink, will press Dallas hard, and that could lead to a new record, and possibly an upset too.
Others still on the trail from Unalakleet appear mostly out of contention, though there is still time for an upset to bring them back into play. Photos, from the top, D Seavey, Sass, Zirkle and M Seavey.
The last third of the Iditarod splits into three parts, of which the middle part is fixed and the final part can either be controlled by a dominant musher or deliver vast surprises, as in 2014, when first Jeff King and then Aliy Zirkle, in turn apparent champions, were overtaken by Dallas Seavey, who was staggering from fatigue.
Download the map from http://coolmainpress.com/iditarodcompmap.html and study it to grasp that from the Kaltag Portage onwards the rules of the Iditarod are stacked in favour of the front runners, which is why year on year there is now an expectation of a new record for the race.
Let’s take it from the middle of the three parts in the last third of the race. The rules mandate an 8hr stop to rest the dogs at White Mountain. This stationary moment at a fixed spot is the key in an otherwise extremely dynamic race.
From White Mountain to the victory arch in Front Street in Nome is 77 miles, not a huge distance in a thousand-mile race to gain any appreciable time on a highly competitive and motivated team. That’s why it took extraordinary circumstance for Dallas Seavey to win from so far behind in 2014.
While nothing in the Iditarod is certain — nothing except unpredictability! — mushers coming from behind can’t count on the weather breaking against the leaders but being just not bad enough to stop their good selves.
So, because of the short distance from the 8hr stop in White Mountain to triumph in Nome, and because of the strategic placing of this 8hr stop at White Mountain, mushers who wish to control the outcome, must reach White Mountain not only first, but with an adequate margin to ensure that teams faster than theirs cannot overtake them on the short run to Nome.
Let’s emphasize that: FIRST TO WHITE MOUNTAIN, WITH BREATHING SPACE
And that means they must start their home run at Kaltag — at the latest — 346 miles from Nome.
Unfortunately, every other musher knows (intermittently, from talk at checkpoints) when you make your break, and can respond.
So, as the Iditarod competition becomes more and more professional, the home run starts earlier and earlier.
This year, Dallas Seavey started his home run for Nome in the summer when he trained his dogs on a treadmill inside a 75ft long refrigerated truck.
In 2016, out of Kaltag it looks to be between Brent Sass, Aliy Zirkle and Dallas Seavey.
Out of Kaltag, 12 March 2016
1 Brent Sass 0820
2 Aliy Zirkle 1053
3 Dallas Seavey 1124
IDITAROD TRAIL SLED DOG RACE
Sass and Zirkle grab lead in Iditarod
10 March 2016 1620 Alaskan Time
Now it gets a bit confused. The starting time differential is taken into account during the mandatory 24hr stopover. The 8hr stopover must be taken on the Yukon, so Jeff King, taking his 24 hours in Ruby and officially the leader of the race until he is overtaken by Brent Sass, will take two mandatory rest periods relatively closely together between Ruby, Galena, Nulato and Kaltag, before the race turns away from the Yukon down
the Kaltag Portage.
Behind Brent Sass, the real leader of the race, the rest of the top ten will be determined by those who already stopped for their mandatory 24 hours, and whether those who served it at Ophir or before can overtake those who are serving it at Cripple before the Cripple crowd are released.
Even as I wrote this, Aliy Zirkle catapulted herself into second place behind Sass by blowing through Cripple in twelve minutes, and hour and a half behind Sass.
In theory any of the 85 runners can win but many know that just finishing the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is a higher accolade than is available in almost any other sport. Realistically, even with catastrophic lack of snow on the trail to create upsets, most literally and dangerously, the winner will come from fewer than twenty men and women.
For a start, remember this. The race is so dangerous that the organizers don’t let in anyone who doesn’t have substantial experience in lesser races, some of them as long, and some of them almost as dangerous. Though some are called “rookies”, there are no real rookies in this race. Everyone is experienced, and experience counts for a very great deal, which is how come there are so many middle-aged men among the champions and would-be champions.
Also, this is a sled dog race; the humans are there only to feed and tend the dogs. And dogs, unlike for instance horses, cannot be driven to work. If the dogs decide they’re tired or hungry or the conditions are too dangerous, they will lie down and the musher’s run will be over. It has happened, recently, to leading mushers. It can happen again.
Dallas Seavey has to be the odds-on favorite. He’s been in the top five five years in a row, with three victories and the race record. He’s a dominant musher, and you bet against him at your peril. It gets worse for every other musher. In years gone by, Dallas has “built his monster” (his own words) slowly and cautiously in the first part of the race, saving his team for a strong finish. This year, when every other musher was taking the summer off because it was too hot for the dogs to train, Dallas was building his monster inside a refrigerated truck on a treadmill long enough to take his entire team. If Dallas doesn’t need to build his monster, if he comes out of the starting blocks sprinting, he could win again.
Okay, so it’s Dallas Seavey’s race to lose. But there are a lot of hard men and women who would be only too happy to take the Iditarod away from Dallas if he makes the slightest misstep or misjudgment, for which an opportunity arises on the Iditarod every few seconds. Chief among the aspirants is Mitch Seavey, father to Dallas, himself a recent champion, and known for never giving up.
So who do I fancy for an upset? It won’t come as much of a surprise to those of you who’ve gone to the Iditarod with me a few times now that I’ve got my money on Joar Leifseth Ulsom, the Norwegian who has finished in the top ten in every Iditarod he has run, and Jessie Royer, who has five top-ten finishes, including three in the last four years, and five further top-20 finishes.
Some other young guns whose time has come, and that you should take a look at, are Brent Sass, Pete Kaiser and Nicolas Petit.
Also, you can’t discount huge depth of experience, including being champion or close runner-up, so given that they have depth in their kennels, I reckon Jeff King, Aliy Zirkle and Hans Gatt stand a good chance of featuring somewhere in the top ten.
Every year we also follow an outsider but this year I want to break that pattern and follow DeeDee Jonrowe in her 34th Iditarod. DeeDee has a stack of Iditarod awards and prize money, and as recently as 2013 she was tenth, but in 2014 she scratched and last year she was 31st. The question is, is she on the comeback trail this year?
Talking of comeback trails, we’ll also be looking at Lance Mackey. It wasn’t so long ago that he was joking about going straight from Champion to Red Lantern. The man has grace.
I first heard about the Iditarod in 1978 at a regatta in Seattle, when a journalist told me, “There’s a little race up in Alaska that is also tough.” I couldn’t resist going to look.
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is the greatest athletic test in the world for man, woman or dog. It is roughly a thousand miles running across barren Alaska within spitting distance of the Arctic Circle.
The Iditarod is for a different order of hard folk, men and women alike; if no one has told you yet, men and women run the Iditarod on equal terms. If the foul weather doesn’t get you, and the dangerous animals don’t either, and you escape frostbite, and the rough trail doesn’t break your bones, you could win.
Fewer people have won the Iditarod than have climbed Everest.
The Seavey’s are creaming themselves. The tracker shows the finish in Nome, the checkpoint in Safety 22 miles from Nome, and White Mountain. On the trail to Nome are 46 Dallas Seavey, 18 Mitch Seavey, 63 Aaron Burmeister.
Check the scale and grab your best guess from thin air about whether Mitch can overtake Dallas before Nome.
Everyone knows why no one races in the modern Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race under Bib No. 1, right? It belongs to the late great Leonhard Seppala, hero of the 1925 “Serum Run” from Seward to Nome.
But did you know there is a musher with no bib, no number? His name is Negeqvak, and last year he took the victory away first from Jeff King within spitting distance from the finish line, and then from Aliy Zirkle when she dithered in the face of Negeqvak.
I’ll let a lifelong Alaskan, John Schandelmeier, a two-time winner of the other 1000 mile race, the Yukon Quest, explainthe relevance of Negeqvak with particular reference to champions and would-be champions:
“Dallas is faster, but if Aaron can force him to cut his rests short … that could change. Neither Aliy Zirkle nor Jesse Royer can be counted out. Neither should negeqvak.”
So who is this Negeqvak, the musher without a bib? Actually, it’s a what. It’s the Yupik word for “north wind”.
Here’s Schandelmeier in the Alaska Dispatch News on a few of the years in which Negeqvak influenced the outcome of the race:
“Last year saw negeqvak become the deciding factor to give Dallas Seavey one of the biggest come-from-behind victories of all time. New, dry snow coupled with forecasted wind could again be instrumental. Some of the Iditarod’s most memorable victories have come with the wind, including Rick Swenson’s record fifth win in 1991 and Libby Riddles’ historic victory as the first woman champion in 1985.”
Right now at Koyuk, Negeqvak is blowing 15mph NNE.
My page Iditarod follows the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race live, as it happens. You’re cordially invited to join us.
No, it isn’t a computer game. It is a real race, the toughest and most dangerous race in the world, running a thousand miles behind a dogsled across the tundra of Alaska, within spitting distance of the Arctic Circle, all the way from Fairbanks to Nome. This is the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, famous or notorious depending on your outlook.
Photo Alaska Dispatch News
And after you beat all the human odds of fatigue and sleep deprivation to get to the head of the field by the time you reach the Kaltag Portage, you have to sprint 250 miles or so to get to White Mountain first.
Why? Because the race is deliberately rigged to set up a sprint for a photo finish under the arch on Front Street in Nome, 77 miles beyond White Mountain. That suited the framers of the competition well, and suits the current race organization equally well, because it also meets the greatest subsidiary aim of the race, next to keeping it alive.
You can tell by their environment that the organizers are hard men and women. But they’re clearly absolutely terrified by a good number of potentials for disaster in the unavoidable dangers that arise from the nature of the race and its immovable geography, terrain and weather. First, they are terrified that anyone will ever say that a dog was maltreated on the Iditarod; they take such good care of the canine contestants that a dog on the gangline, running in the Iditarod, stands a better chance of surviving the period of the Iditarod than the average pooch that you can see your neighbor walking. For the health of the dogs there are several mandatory fixed-length stops during the race. One of these, of eight hours, is at White Mountain.
I said the organizers are visibly terrified by a number of possibilities. We don’t have time or space to go into all of them, but another predictable worry is that a contestant will kill himself on the Iditarod, and perhaps get the race banned. They have very strict entry qualifications to guard against this, and a “rookie” on the Iditarod is always an experienced long-distance musher already. That everyone let into the Iditarod is a very hard case goes without saying, tough, fit, and with unshakable focus.
So now you have a bunch of very tough, fit, focused mushers coming down the mountain from Kaltag, having already beaten out the other very tough, very fit athletes to be in the first ten out of Kaltag checkpoint, knowing that beyond White Mountain, where everyone has to stop eight hours, everyone will be rested, and there will be only 77 miles left in the race.
Seventy-seven miles is not far enough to make up any significant distance on a top competitor.
Every musher wants to be first out of White Mountain. And that means arriving at White Mountain first.
Of course everyone else knows this too. That sets up a longrange sprint of attrition to be first at White Mountain. Every year the sprint for White Mountain starts earlier. This year it visibly started at Kaltag. Some might argue it started earlier, even much earlier…
It doesn’t matter precisely where it started. We’re into the sprint now. Enjoy.
My page Iditarod follows the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race live, as it happens. You’re cordially invited to join us.