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:
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.
[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?]
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.
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.
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.