Defending champ Seavey says he's still got a shot; King looks to reel in rivals

Bob Hallinen

From Casey Grove in Ruby --

Using a headlamp as he finished prepping his team, Sonny Lindner waited for his 24-hour layover to expire and chatted with locals. His construction company, Johnson River Enterprises, remodeled the village school here last summer.

Lindner said he planned to take only one long break on the Yukon before Unalakleet and the Norton Sound coast, other than stops to feed the dogs along the way.

“We’ll see how that works,” Lindner said, walking from dog to dog, his boots crunching in the snow.

It was chilly at 15 below with a slight breeze before dawn. The sky just barely started to lighten over the Yukon River.

Jeff King and Lindner surprised some race watchers by mushing all the way to the Yukon without taking a mandatory layover. But Lindner said he had thought about going farther, until the roughness in the Dalzell Gorge and Farewell Burn, which knocked many teams out of the race.

“Looking back at it, to have given ’em a rest right after that might've been better. I wasn't prepared to do that, but just after the kind of run we had,” Lindner said. “I mean, I got through there in one piece, but I had a couple sore dogs a day or two later."

The huskies look fine now, Lindner said. “It was real nice just traveling along. There weren’t a lot of teams. Kind of out there by ourself. It was nice.”

Lindner confirmed rumors that he planned to retire from sled dog racing after getting to Nome.

“Oh yeah. I am retired,” he said. "I'm going to be more retired shortly. Gotta give these young guys a chance to do this more."

“Are you going to go out with a bang?” I asked him.

“You mean explode or what? Catch fire?” Linder said, smiling and chuckling.

“No, not literally. I mean do you have a shot at winning it?”

“I just want to be there,” he said. “I guess I want to be there fast.”

One of those young up-and-comers is Nicolas Petit, 2011 Rookie of the Year, whose team was parked next to Lindner’s. While Lindner’s departure time approached, Petit hustled to throw away trash and shove a few last-minute items in his sled bag before his eight-hour break ran out.

“Am I late yet?” Petit asked race official and former Iditarod director Raine Hall.

“No, you got one minute,” Hall said.

“Wow. That’s all I got to say there,” said Petit, surprised he was ready in time. Almost.

Petit, as always, asked his dogs if they were ready and whistled to them. The dogs stood up. Petit looked back to where his gear had been on the snow.

“I better take my parka,” he said, running back to get the coat he’d forgotten, then letting his dogs pull him down a hill to the river and out of town.

Nearby, Mitch Seavey put booties on his dogs and told a volunteer he’d be leaving in 10 minutes.

“How’s it going, Mitch?” I asked. 

The defending champ took it from there, launching into an assessment of the race so far and his plans for the trail ahead. 

“Well, we’re starting to race a little better now,” he said, pacing his words the way he paces his team: steady, measured. “I know we’re kind of behind, but I sure like the team. If they keep running fast, we still got a chance of winning.”

Seavey said to expect fast times from the mushers heading from here to Galena. With more racers taking rest, he said, there will be a “slingshot effect.”

“I like going fast out here,” he said.

His plan: “Some rhythm, try to avoid long runs.”

Up the hill, Jeff King, the first to reach Ruby, sat in the snow with his dogs, somehow comfortable wearing just a ball cap and no gloves. King said he was feeling great after a 24-hour rest and a five-course meal. He had arrived here a little before 7 a.m. Thursday, and it was nice to get some sleep before the big dinner that night, he said.

“I don’t think anybody has ever taken their 24 and had the meal the same day,” he said. “We had a very sane day, and preparations were more like having dinner reservations.”

“What’s your plan for the Yukon?” I asked. 

 “I'm betting there's going to be a certain number of teams that can't keep up the pace that they've set for themselves, and I'm hoping to reel them in,” King said.