Aliy is the alpha, they agree.
"I'm the one who goes out, chases the moose way, and all the dogs go, 'Thanks, that's great,'" said Two Rivers musher Aliy Zirkle, who will share the Iditarod trail this year with her husband and fellow racer Allen Moore.
"We always kid around that you're the fun parent and I'm like the strict parent," Zirkle told Moore Friday as the pair made final preparations for a run at the 2013 championship.
Moore won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest in February. But it's Zirkle who is expected to battle for the Iditarod title against defending champion Dallas Seavey and more than a dozen other top contenders.
Racing a team of elfin huskies that are among the smallest in the Iditarod, Zirkle said she hopes to correct caffeine-fueled mistakes that she suspects lost her the race in 2012. Last year marked a breakout, second-place performance for the 43-year-old musher who had never before placed better than 11th.
She could have won, Zirkle says now. Moore, 55, knows the feeling. After losing the 2012 Yukon Quest by less than a minute to Tok musher Hugh Neff, he rebounded to claim his first championship in that race this year.
Their dog trucks parked outside a downtown hotel, the couple spoke with the Daily News about marriage, dogs and why this Iditarod might be different. Here's what they had to say.
Q. How do you decide who gets the top team in your family kennel? Allen, you just won the Quest. Was there a discussion about whether you should just take that momentum into the Iditarod?
Allen: Not really. (Aliy) is an excellent dog driver. She should win Iditarod.
Aliy: Wow, thanks, pressure. I should?
Allen: You should! I should have won the Quest last year too, but I didn't. I don't know. What do you say about that?
Aliy: We have to share the wealth. We are both racing and we both are very excited about it. And I'm sure that if Allen wanted to go try to win the Sheep Mountain, Copper Basin, Kusko, Yukon Quest, Iditarod ( races) and that was what we were headed for, we could do that. Or if I wanted to ...
Allen: But what would be the fun in that?
Aliy: We have to share. It's part of the kennel and it's part of our relationship. I think it's kind of neat to have different drivers, you know. We do a lot that's similar, and obviously we train the dogs up together.
Allen: Eleven of the dogs she will be starting with, I finished the Quest with. They just seem to not get injured as often as other dogs. We try to start a race with the No. 1 team with the healthiest dogs. They might not be the best, but they're the healthiest.
Q. Do the dogs perform differently depending on which one of you is driving?
Allen: I think overall, not. But just little instances ... (a moody lead dog named Beemer) will act a little bit different toward her
Aliy: Or Puppet. Puppet's your girlfriend. Our dogs don't get shipped off to a glacier (for summer tourism) or anything like that. They're our dogs. We raised them. We raised the pups. They weren't raised at a boarding kennel or anything like that. We welped them. They're at our house, they're in our house. ... And it's an interaction with both of us. So our dogs know us intimately.
Allen: We're a little bit different than other kennels in that we don't have as many dogs, so we can relate to each dog individually, more often. The bigger kennels, it would be hard to get to 100 different dogs, and know them like we know this 30-some-odd dogs.
Q. Does the kennel recognize one of you guys as the alpha?
Allen: I would say they would think Aliy is more of the alpha. She's the one that ...
Aliy: ... Wakes up in the middle of the night and walks outside and chases the moose away? I would be the one, probably just because of that. I sleep lighter than he does, so whenever there's an issue with the yard or anything. Our house is built on a hill and the dogs are all around the house. And so, just actually two nights ago, before we left the kennel, there was a moose walking through the yard. I'm the one who wakes up ...
Allen: ... I never knew about it.
Aliy: ... I'm the one who goes out, chases the moose way, and all the dogs go, 'Thanks, that's great." I would always say, we always kid around that you're the fun parent and I'm like the strict parent.
Q. You don't have young kids together as a couple, so that part of your life is directed toward the dogs?
Aliy: Allen is a parent (from a prior relationship). His two daughters, they'll be down here today. They're older, they have families of their own. I've never been a parent. The dogs are my kids. That's kind of sick, but it's true.
Q. What do you guys fight about?
Aliy: I get a little snitty. He never does.
Allen: We don't fight that often. When she goes off of coffee, which was about three weeks ago, she gets a little snitty. And the reason she goes off coffee is she takes these caffeine pills in the race. And she wants them to do something, and they do do something to her when she takes them in a race. So after having coffee all year long, in the middle of February, she just goes cold turkey.
Aliy: I haven't had caffeine for three weeks. ... Caffeine is an enormous drug. It should probably be illegal. Why establish a superior "A" team and a less competitive "B" team? As opposed to, say, Martin and Rohn Buser who this year had a draft and took turns picking teams from their family kennel before Rohn dropped out of the race?
Allen: A few years go we did the same thing, where she picked a dog, I picked a dog. And we're in these smaller races, and we come in third and fourth. And so we said, "What the heck?" After that, we decided that every race, from there on, we're going to have a team that can win a race. And then the other person would take the "B" team, so to speak, and it's worked out pretty well.
Aliy: Just like any kind of team, any kind of NBA, NFL team, there are great players and you kind of want to stock all your great players on one team. All great players have different skills. Great leaders. Strong dogs. Great attitudes, great eaters. My team for Iditarod is stacked with the great dogs.
Q. Aliy, have you settled on what you think happened last year? (When Zirkle led for much of the race and finished second to a surging but cool-headed Dallas Seavey.) Did the team overachieve, or was that a missed opportunity, or something in between?
Aliy: I feel like I let the team down mentally. That I had a little bit of a hiccup mentally. That I under-estimated what they could do, and that was the flaw of the race.
Allen: Going into sleep deprivation. A lot of things at the time, that's what she's talking about.
Aliy: So, I believe a couple choices I made between Kaltag and Unalakleet -- and in Unalakleet -- was my fault. And that the team was probably a little stronger there than I had assumed they were.
Q: You were too conservative? How so?
Aliy: I gave them a few too many breaks out on the trail, that I thought they needed. I had a long run from Kaltag to Unalakleet. A lot longer than most of the teams. That was due to me stopping out there and giving them some breaks. Food and snacks, that kind of thing. I was worried about them really more than I should have been, and it was really me that was not doing so well. But I got back on board after a little bit of sleep.
Q. You could have won last year?
Aliy: Oh yeah. I'm funny. This probably annoys reporters ... I'm not going to get out there and be the cocky little s--- that a lot of people want me to be, and say I'm ready to take this race and I have the best team ever, and everyone get out of the way. What was the quote this morning in the ADN from Mitch Seavey, that "I know it sounds arrogant but we're the top competition" in the world, and that kind of thing? That's just not me. I have a fantastic team. I certainly could have won last year. I know that Dallas Seavey was looking in his rear view mirror, because he told me. And that this year, boy, we have a great team. I'm pretty excited about it. We can win ... Whether we will win or not, I can guarantee you one thing, I will try my absolute darndest.
By KYLE HOPKINS