So what will it take to win the 2017 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and who can do it?
Yesterday, we considered whether one of the currently dominant Seaveys, Dallas (left) or Mitch (right), can win a straight sixth victory in the 2017 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. What we saw was that the Seaveys have plenty of experience in winning.
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.
André operates a special page for live Iditarod race reports where you’re welcome to join him.