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Thrilling Iditarod to remember rewards determined mushers with patience

Zack Steer
Mitch Seavey kicks it into high gear on the trail between White Mountain and Nome. March 12, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Mitch Seavey kicks it into high gear on the trail between White Mountain and Nome. March 12, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Mitch Seavey kicks it into high gear on the trail between White Mountain and Nome. March 12, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Aliy Zirkle working to catch up to Iditarod leader Mitch Seavey on the trail between White Mountain and Nome. March 12, 2013
Loren Holmes photo

Iditarod front-runner Mitch Seavey arrived in White Mountain Tuesday determined to give his all on the final 77-mile push to the finish in Nome. Second into White Mountain was Aliy Zirkle. She and her team arrived in the coastal village only 13 minutes behind Mitch, but gaining on him, having completed her previous run from Elim a half-hour faster than Mitch.

Mushers watch run times very closely while resting in-between checkpoints, and both knew where they stood. There was a glimmer of hope that the Two Rivers musher, a former Yukon Quest International Sled Dog race winner and runner-up in last year's Iditarod, might pass Mitch Seavey and arrive first into Nome.

Seavey was openly concerned. Zirkle had been making up time on him since Unalakleet, where she'd arrived three and a half hours behind him. Momentum was in her favor. 

Showing discipline and an unwavering respect for his dog team, Seavey had continued to take a methodical pace up the coast, stopping at each checkpoint at least three hours. He let Denali Park musher Jeff King pass his team in Koyuk, risking the lead in favor of taking care of his dogs and sticking to his race plan. The coastal move by King, himself a four-time Iditarod champion, faltered as sugar-soft snow along the trail tired out his dog team. Seavey re-took the lead in Elim and never looked back.  

Tanner vs. Quito

The race would come down to a match of lead dogs on the final 77-mile run to Nome. Seavey had Tanner, a 6-year-old male with indomitable spirit and a singular focus while leading his canine companions down the trail. Zirkle had Quito, a 6-year-old female and veteran of four Iditarods, who just came off the Yukon Quest two weeks before the Iditarod, having led Allen Moore to a redeeming victory after last year’s runner-up finish.  

Both Tanner and Quito could be considered "super dogs," team leaders with confidence, experience and proven competitors. This year’s Iditarod would be decided by whichever lead dog had a championship run. In the end, Tanner pulled Seavey at a slightly faster clip along the shoreline between Topkok and Safety, building a 30-minute lead that Quito and company could not make up.

Mitch Seavey and Aliy Zirkle each ran nearly perfect races over more than 900 miles. The dogs made the difference.

Race strategy counts, to be sure, and this year was no exception. What keeps this sport interesting is the change in race variables -- temperature, snow pack, wind, precipitation -- that may favor one team’s racing style over another any given year. Seavey and Zirkle, veterans of the trail, each took a conservative approach, resting in Takotna for the 24-hour layover and timing their runs to avoid the heat of the day on the Yukon River. Zirkle even stopped outside of Kaltag on the Yukon and then twice more on the 90-mile trail to Unalakleet on the Norton Sound coast.   

Both Seavey and Zirkle left White Mountain Tuesday afternoon, not knowing who would be the next Iditarod champion. Years of preparation and hard work focused each of them.

From brilliance to bomb

Most Top-20 mushers get more sleep during their eight-hour break at White Mountain than during the previous three days combined. Sleep deprivation may be the most important factor making sled dog racing unique among sports. The exhaustion of nearly 1,000 miles of racing is masked by adrenaline as the finish line nears. As eighth-place finisher Jake Berkowitz of Big Lake said, “If we did not love what we were doing, we would not be here."

My pre-race picks of the Top-5 Iditarod 2013 finishers were nearly all wrong. The competitive parity at the top echelons of the sport make such predictions relatively useless, and one year’s brilliant strategy may doom a musher the next time. Martin Buser's bold move early on -- at one point the Big Lake legend was five hours ahead of the nearest competitor --was partly thwarted by unseasonably warm temperatures followed by bad weather that left him trail-breaking much of the trail between Shageluk and the final Yukon River checkpoint of Kaltag. 

Aaron Burmeister’s surge to the coast was buffeted by a micro-blizzard that only he and a few of the other lead teams had to deal with. Four hours later, the coast was clear.  

King’s final coastal push into the lead might have worked another year with better trail conditions. You just never know for sure what’s going to work.  

Oldest, youngest champion from same family

In general, the mushers that did well this year were “patient predators” as race analyst Bruce Lee commented. The effect of race variables, run/rest times, trail conditions, and weather on this year’s race kept fans guessing. GPS technology, attached to each musher's sled, allowed Iditarod Insider subscribers to watch the duel between Mitch Seavey and Aliy Zirkle heading into Nome. Zirkle started to close the gap leaving White Mountain but as soon as the teams hit the flats before Safety, Seavey extended his lead to 20 minutes.

Mitch Seavey now knows the satisfaction of winning a second Iditarod championship. Driving down Front Street in Nome, he gave props to all the “gentlemen of a certain age” who think life slows down after age 50. “It doesn’t,” he said with a wry smile. Seavey now holds the title of “Oldest Iditarod Champion,” a bookmark to the title his son, Dallas, won just last year as the “Youngest Iditarod Champion."

Late Tuesday night, Nome was reminiscent of the Great Alaska Sweepstakes races 100 years ago as the crowd closed in around dog teams and mushers made their way up the finish chute. Zirkle had another great race, a repeat of her 2012 second-place finish. Most mushers can only hope to be so consistent, with a dog team that delivers her into a legitimate position for victory in back-to-back Iditarods. She'll have to wait one more year for the intangibles, luck and good fortune, to perhaps propel her into the winner's circle.

Seavey did not let up until his lead dogs nose crossed beneath the famed arch. Only then did he stop looking back. Tanner and the rest of Mitch Seavey’s championship dog team won the Iditarod with a strategy that worked this year. Mitch’s insistence on congratulating his team first before accepting any personal accolades brought out the very essence of the sport – a man or woman’s connection with and love of their dogs. After 20 years of racing, Mitch could call lead dog Tanner one of the best he’s ever had.  

Mitch Seavey has consistently finished in the Top 10 every year since his last Iditarod victory in 2004. His age, 53, certainly did not hinder his expectations in The Last Great Race. On the contrary, his experience and patience proved invaluable and added to his family's legacy as Iditarod pillars.

Zack Steer, a five-time Iditarod finisher, is sitting out this year's race. He owns and operates the Sheep Mountain Lodge with Anjanette and two young boys. Follow Zack’s race analysis at Alaska Dispatch.