NOME -- Don't say he didn't warn you.
As early as the halfway mark of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, 25-year-old Dallas Seavey revealed the plan that would crown him the youngest champion in race history. The blueprint: Throttle his team's speed early, resist the temptation to surge ahead, spring the trap.
Or, as Seavey likes to say, he was creating a monster.
"We built the winning team during the race," Seavey said, crediting the win on the mid-race restraint he showed even as others leaped ahead. "As soon as (other) teams really started coming together, they took off and started racing and tore it all apart."
A third-generation musher who shared the race trail this year with his father and grandfather, Seavey kicked from White Mountain to Nome on Tuesday. A north wind walloped his sled, fanning snow into the Bering Sea as the young musher extended his lead into Safety and pushed ahead for the title.
Seavey finished at 7:29 p.m., an hour ahead of runner-up Aliy Zirkle. His total time for the 975-mile race was 9 days, 4 hours, 29 minutes and 26 seconds.
Under the burled arch, Seavey hinted that his predictions of victory and his regular recitations of his game plan at all points along the trail may have been more for himself than anyone else.
"After we had made our moves, Aaron (Burmeister) passed me going out of Unalakleet, he hung on for quite awhile,'" Seavey said. "I thought, 'He's got 15 beautiful looking dogs, he's an excellent dog driver. We might have our hands full.' "
Zirkle's Yukon Quest-tested team spooked him too.
Running the final legs of the race, every noise sounded like a musher yelling for him to make way. Every light looked like the headlamp of a pursuing competitor, Seavey said.
"You better believe we doubted it all the way until we got here," he said.
Seavey soon interrupted a question-and-answer session to jog outside and greet Zirkle at the finish line.
"Hey youngster!" Zirkle said as the mushers hugged.
"How's your toe?" she asked, referring to an angry, grape-sized blister Seavey suffered late in the race.
It's still attached, Seavey said.
That race was fun, he added. "Let's do this again next year."
"I'll get back to you after that first beer," Zirkle replied.
FITNESS ON HIS SIDE
While Iditarod mushers come in all shapes and ages -- the first racer to the midway point this year was a 71-year-old retired doctor -- Seavey is a prototypical athlete. A state and national champion wrestler, he can regularly be seen running with his sled to lighten the burden on his dogs.
That fitness likely helped propel him to the win, Seavey said early Tuesday.
"I spend a lot of time ski-poling and pedaling," he said. "Coming over here in this deep snow and these steep hills and (with) such a nice team as Aliy has right behind me, I'm not sparing any energy."
Among the musher's late-game tactics, Seavey camped about two miles out of Elim for about 2 1/2 hours Monday. He hadn't planned on stopping on the way to White Mountain but needed rest and believed Zirkle would think he was far out of reach.
"If she had known that I was only, still easily within reach of her. I don't think she would have given me quite as much time to rest my dogs," Seavey said.
Zirkle, 41, said she indeed knew what Seavey was up to but couldn't close the gap.
At the finish line, Seavey told reporters that Zirkle's team pressed him all the way to Nome.
"Aliy, she held it strong all the way to the end. We needed every drop of speed to beat those teams," he said.
Two of the musher's favored dogs, lead dog Diesel and 9-year-old Guinness, joined him on the winner's podium. The big huskies each commanded the team at times on Seavey's 2011 championship Quest team, he said.
Guinness no longer runs lead and this will mark her last Iditarod, Seavey said. "Any time I had a dog getting down ... she'll remind them how much fun it is being on the trail."
Zirkle was the leader out of half a dozen checkpoints, a pacesetter for the middle third of the race. The majority of her small dogs recently came within seconds of winning the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest. Before the race, Zirkle said the little huskies were capable of a championship, but it would be up to her to lead them.
In White Mountain, Zirkle said that the windy, 85-mile slog from Kaltag to Unalakleet may have exhausted the team.
"Looking back, maybe I should have stopped (the team) for an hour."
The surging Ramey Smyth, meantime, had been a non-factor in the early days of the race. On Day 1, he fell asleep on his sled and was forced to run after his dogs for about 40 minutes, he said. The team passed another musher, Rohn Buser, before Smyth caught them.
Smyth was forced to drop multiple younger dogs, such as Yak and Walrus, suffering from a bug causing diarrhea and vomiting. Yet the musher, a cabin builder and son of two Iditarod veterans, leaped from 30th place in Takotna to third place by White Mountain.
Asked if he could have challenged for the win without the early misadventures, Smyth said he believes so.
"I almost guarantee it. ... It would have been a different race for me," he said.
In fourth place late Tuesday was Nenana musher Aaron Burmeister, who has been training in Nome and sold several of Seavey's Iditarod team to the younger musher in 2009.
Burmeister sat early Tuesday morning in the White Mountain tribal building, waiting out his mandatory layover and eating moose chili beside Iditarod veteran Jessie Royer.
The pair spoke an arcane dog-mushing dialect.
"I've got nearly all my dogs with chicken feet because of that sugar snow," Burmeister complained.
Royer scanned a copy of the latest race results, which showed the younger Seavey, Zirkle, Smyth and Burmeister packed at the front. The pair sat silently for a moment.
"Guess what, Jessie? I'm in fourth place in the Iditarod," Burmeister said.
"It's pretty cool to look up here and see a bunch of new names," she replied.
Seavey won the 2011 Yukon Quest but said this is the first year in five Iditarod starts that his goal was to win the race. While his finished fourth in last year's Iditarod, becoming the youngest champion was the plan all along, he said.
"That's been something I've actually been working toward for five years now," said Seavey, who celebrated his 25th birthday March 4, the day of the race re-start in Willow.
The musher is the son of 2004 champion Mitch and the grandson of 74-year-old Iditarod veteran Dan Seavey. All three were racing this year, with Mitch Seavey running one of his fastest-ever teams.
On the trail, Mitch said he grew tired of constant questions about the competition with his son.
"If I were on the sidelines not racing, obviously I'd want him to win. And yet I'm trying to race to win, so there's a conflict there," he said Monday in Koyuk.
Dallas said he understood. He found himself keeping some race plans and tactics to himself rather than sharing them with his dad.
"I understand exactly what he's talking about, it goes both ways there. It's been tricky," he said. "My dad's always been the team that I've been cheering for and helping and advising when I can."
Zirkle said she was impressed with the younger Seavey's analytical style.
"The one thing I really liked about his race is that he thought about it," she said. "He thought about his dogs and he thought about each consequence of every move he made."
By KYLE HOPKINS
Anchorage Daily News