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In a finish for the ages, Dallas Seavey claims glory in Iditarod 2014

Craig Medred, Suzanna Caldwell
Dallas Seavey running down Front Street in Nome, to win the 2014 Iditarod. Mar 11, 2014 Loren Holmes photo

Just when everyone thought the strange Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race of 2014 couldn't get it any stranger, it turned really bizarre. 

Dallas Seavey ended up the winner at about 4:04 a.m Tuesday morning, only 2 minutes, 22 seconds ahead of runner-up Aliy Zirkle. Seavey's time, 8 days, 13 hours, 4 minutes and 19 seconds, set a new record, shattered the previous record of 8 days, 18 hours, and 46 minutes set by John Baker in 2011.

But in a measure of how crazy this race has been, that wasn't apparent, even to the winner, until after he'd won. "I thought I’d just beat my dad across the finish line for third," Seavey told interviewers shortly after finishing. Zirkle, meanwhile, asked about passing a stopped Jeff King, said "I never saw Jeff." Zirkle had apparently lost the trail and still believed King was ahead of her when she reached the last checkpoint at Safety during the storm that stopped King.

Seavey, who believed he was racing for third, said  he decided to go through the storm to give his still young dogs a good learning experience. The wind, Seavey said, was awful -- especially after the Topkok Hills -- requiring him to lean into it at an angle. "I thought we were going to Russia," he said.

Instead, he was headed to a record finish, on one of the fastest -- but also most difficult -- courses the race has seen.

But it was a very twisted trail he followed to get there. As Aliy Zirkle put it in the post-race press conference, "Mother Nature did not smile on the Iditarod this year."

After a snowless trail and broken sleds and countless musher injuries and dogs running faster than ever only to suddenly declare "no más," á la boxer Roberto Duran, the dog team of race leader and expected race winner Jeff King of Denali Park stalled along the Bering Sea coast Monday night only five miles or so from the Safety Roadhouse, the last checkpoint on the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail from Willow to Nome.

Aliy Zirkle, who had arrived first to Unalakleet earlier in the race, passed King as he stayed with his stagnant team, but went only several miles farther to the Safety checkpoint, where she shut her team down, presumably to wait out the bad weather. 

Enter 2012 champ Dallas Seavey from Willow, who hit the Bering Sea coast on Sunday in fifth place, about eight hours behind the leaders, but steadily began working his way toward the front. He reached White Mountain in third place, but looked to be out of contention when all of the mushers took the mandatory eight-hour rest there. He wouldn't be able to leave White Mountain until nearly three hours after King, meaning his hopes for an Iditarod win in 2014 were slim as recently as Monday afternoon.

Then the world tilted away from the age and experience of King, 58, toward the youth and durability of Seavey, 26. As the weather worsened and King went in the ditch -- Iditarod website reporter Joe Runyan reported the musher was blown off the trail into a pile of driftwood -- the younger musher pushed on. 

Both Zirkle and Seavey agreed that the conditions around Safety were bad.

Zirkle, who said she'd been off the trail for most of the way coming into Safety, didn't pass King, and didn't initially didn't believe he'd scratched. She said she thought the checker in Safety was simply using a fresh sheet to sign her in. It wasn't until she saw King ride in on the back of a snowmachine, that she realized he was out of the race.

King's difficulties, Seavey suggested, show how bad conditions were: "If he's having trouble out there, you know it's hellacious."

Zirkle said conditions were bad enough that she called the race marshal to warn him to keep an eye on the GPS trackers of arriving mushers: "If they stop, it's really not good." In fact, visibility was so bad, she said, that she couldn't see her lead dogs from her sled, and opted to stay in Safety. "The safest thing to do was to get my act together and not leave," she said, instead deciding on coffee and a nap. But after about 90 minutes, Seavey arrived and decided to press on. At that point conditions had improved a bit; Seavey at least could make out his lead dogs.

When he left, Zirkle gave chase 20 minutes later, her all-star lead dog, Quito, in single lead trying to run Seavey down. It's a position the two have been in before. Zirkle finished second to Seavey in 2012. Last year, she came in just behind Dallas's dad, Mitch Seavey.

This year it was the same. 

A war of attrition

In some ways it was only fitting that an Iditarod that began as a war of attrition ended the same way. The trail down from the Alaska Range had proven snowless, rough and brutal.

Contender Jake Berkowitz from Big Lake gave it up when his dog sled disintegrated amidst the pounding delivered by the bumpy trail. Former race runner-up Ramey Smyth from Willow tossed it in when his dogs grew weary. Aaron Burmeister from Nome, one of the front runners, limped along on a torn up, strapped together knee until he couldn't limp fast enough to keep up.

And King, who was happy and bubbling with excitement Monday morning, ended the day in a different mood altogether and scratched after he couldn't get his dog team moving again just miles from Safety.

What exactly happened to the four-time champ remained unclear. He'd earlier in the day been spotted making good time behind a team that sped down out of the Topkok Hills onto the a 20-mile-long coastal plain leading to a short climb up Cape Nome. He never got near the cape.

Whether King -- whose sled was seen fishtailing on glare ice behind his team in strong winds earlier in the day -- was physically blown off the trail or his dogs grew tired of glare-ice trail and decided to stop was unknown.

What was known was that 44-year-old Aliy Zirkle from Two Rivers passed him late Monday and kept on going. Zirkle appeared to have watched a third straight Iditarod slip away earlier after she led the race to the sea coast on Saturday.

King caught her as the race moved north and then west along the coast, and by the time racers hit White Mountain, his team had built a lead of almost an hour. An 8-hour mandatory rest is required of all the teams at White Mountain, and any lead there of more than a few minutes has usually proven insurmountable.

A dramatic Iditarod finish

That is the way King's lead looked at first, too. He led out of White Mountain and across the Topkok Hills on Monday afternoon, his team continuing to pull away from that of Zirkle despite increasing winds and blowing snow. They were moving along nicely when spotted on the almost snowless seashore below the Topkoks late Monday afternoon.

And then the wheels came off.

Nome, only 25 to 30 miles to the west but in reality as out-of-touch with what was happening on the trail as people all over the world watching GPS satellite trackers on the Iditarod website, was alive with rumors.

The winds were howling with deadly force. King was in life-threatening danger. He'd hurt himself. His dogs had quit. Pick one. Pick two. Maybe combine them all into one story.

In reality, nobody knew anything other than that he wasn't moving and Zirkle had passed him. She hit the Safety checkpoint minutes before 11 p.m., and just when everyone thought she'd gotten the break that would finally ensure a victory, she stopped.

There she sat until Dallas showed up at 1:13 a.m. Tuesday. When he went through with barely a pause, she roused her dogs and hit the trail behind him.

Finally the race was back on -- her 10 dogs against Seavey's seven in a test of not only of endurance but of who had guessed best. There is an old dictate for sled-dog racing that says a team can only go as fast as its slowest dog.

On the last 20-mile leg of the Iditarod, dog power is not as important as speed. The sleds are light by then. Mushers drop what extra gear they can in Safety. What really matters is the foot speed of the dogs.

Ten will help you only if they're all as fast as the other mushers seven. If one of those 10 is slower, it can slow down the whole team. It can become a difficult task deciding who to take and who to leave.

Seavey turned out to be the one who chose best. Down three dogs, he still beat Zirkle to the finish. They just had more foot speed.

Maybe Zirkle, the fan favorite, will get another chance next year. She hugged and signed autographs for some of the hundreds of fans who lined Front Street in Nome to get a chance to see their Aliy, chanting her name and screaming "we love you!"

When asked in the convention center -- surrounded by about 75 people all listening breathlessly to her every word -- about a third second place finish she only had this to say:

"Better than scratching."

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com. Contact Suzanna Caldwell at Suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Correction: This story originally misstated John Baker's record finish time as 8 days, 19 hours and 46 minutes.