Every year I take a busman’s holiday at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. I have a page that helps people follow the race. In theory my presence and the helpful page promotes my novel about the race. In practice the book, long since a best seller, promotes itself, and is anyway better promoted by enthusiastic readers than by the author, and I maintain the page to help myself keep track of a confusing race spread over 1046 miles (approximately) of the most inaccessible and dangerous terrain on earth, and share it with others of like mind. The other thing I do every year just before the Iditarod is amusing: I try to pick some outsiders who will do well; I’m proud of an outstanding track record, for intance picking Aliy Zirkle in each of the years she came second. Obvious now, but this woman, already over forty, with small dogs, in the beginning just wasn’t an obvious choice against the hard men with their brawny dogs. Another example: I picked the poster boy, the Iditarod heart-throb, Joar Leifseth Ulsom, when he came from nowhere, with no track record at this level of mushing.
So, why am I bragging about past triumphs? Because this year the organizers, by accepting so many novices, have made it almost impossible to pick genuine outsiders, short of sticking a pin into the entry list, or laboriously tracing the provenance of each musher. And I intend “provenance” in the precise dictionary meaning: that a musher grew up in a mushing household and community clearly matters in winning the Iditarod, as does the learning experience of the race itself. It’s a dangerous race, so the organizers, terrified someone will die on their race, let in only those with experience and a track record in other tough races. This in turn makes it even more difficult to pick the newcomer who will emerge from the pack.
I wouldn’t bet tuppence of my own money on a race as long, and over such terrain, and through such uncertain weather, as the Iditarod. But if I were staking serious money, I’d grit my teeth and accept the short odds on Dallas Seavey to take a third win. Lance Mackey and Jeff King, both four-time winners, stand at the head of a line of contenders who think they’re finishing the Seavey’s run — Dallas’s dad Mitch is also a two-time winner and a current contender to be reckoned with. There, let’s leave the list of hard, experienced men, several more with victories or many high finishes on their record, and look at the outsiders.
At the beginning of the Iditarod last year (2014), Aliy Zirkle was all set, by her record of two second places, to leave the list of underdogs and outside chances for the permanent powers that be, the perennial threats. But events in the closing stages of the 2014 race have raised the question whether she is only a nice lady with athletic gifts — or whether she’s a winner. After Jeff King was blown off the trail and was forced to scratch only 25 miles from a fifth victory to protect his dogs, it was Aliy Zirkle’s race to lose. And she did lose it by not being ready when the gritty, relentless competitor Dallas Seavey arrived from nearly two hours behind to blow without rest through Safety, where Aliy was resting. Dallas staggered on to victory in Nome.
Dallas Seavey, winning the 1000+ mile 2014 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from 1h49m behind 77 miles before the finish.
That Aliy, had she not relaxed into champion mode already in Safety, could have caught the worn Dallas and his tired dogs is shown by the fact that, starting from 17 minutes behind in Safety, 22 miles later in Nome Aliy was only 2m22s behind Dallas, an otherwise incredible gain that tells us much about their relative condition.
The popular Aliy Zirkle, runner-up for the third year running in 2014.
Dallas won that race because he is first and foremost a winner. Which is how come we pick him to win again. He’s a pretty obvious choice: young and hard, yet hugely experienced, a proven winner.
And once more I pick Aliy to upset the running behind Dallas, possibly to be second again, especially of there is a settled weather over all or most of the race to favour her light, fast dogs. Who knows, she may have learned her lesson last year: the race isn’t over till you cross the line, and use her chances better this year. We’re due for a woman winner, and Aliy is still the best-placed woman to deliver that victory.
For newcomers, the Iditarod is one of the very few great sporting events in the world where men and women compete on equal terms. As the saying goes, “Alaska, where men are men, and women win the Iditarod.” The late Susan Butcher has four victories too.
And for a new champion from among the outsiders? Once again I fancy the impressive Norwegian Joar Leifseth Ulsom. This is no longer a daring prediction because everyone knows his time will come, but I’m betting on sooner rather than later.
An underdog who could easily choose this year to become a top ten top dog is Nathan Schroeder, the 2014 Iditarod Rookie of the Year.
If the ladies want someone interesting to follow besides Aliy, try DeeDee Jonrowe, a veteran runner with an enviable record of high finishes, still a threat for the top places. And don’t forget the grittily courageous Cindy Gallea, 63, who last year was forced to scratch through illness.
Fewer people have finished the Iditarod than have ascended to the summit of Mount Everest.
The toughest race in the world, a race of attrition because of trail and weather conditions just short of the Artic Circle.
My page Iditarod follows the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race live, as it happens. You’re cordially invited to join us.
André Jute is the author of the much-loved, multi-award-winning bestselling novel IDITAROD a novel of the Greatest Race on Earth, available in paperback and all ebook formats.