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Dallas Seavey heralds new order of Alaska mushing

Jill Burke
Ramey Smyth's daughter Ava, 4, hands out her father's used booties at the finish line in Nome on Tuesday, March 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Dallas Seavey coming down front street in Nome to win the 2012 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Tuesday, March 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Dallas Seavey coming down front street in Nome to win the 2012 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Tuesday, March 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Dallas Seavey and Aliy Zirkle hug after a long competition in Iditarod 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Dallas Seavey under burled arch in Nome after winning Iditarod 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Dallas Seavey and his dogs "Diesel" and "Guinness" under the buried arch.
Loren Holmes photo
Dallas Seavey won the 2012 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Tuesday, March 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
2012 Iditarod a tired Dallas Seavey savours his record setting win
Loren Holmes photo
Aliy Zirkle navigates the sea ice on her final push to Nome, Tuesday March 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Aliy Zirkle arrives in Nome in second place
Loren Holmes photo
Aliy Zirkle mushing down Front Street in Nome at the finish of the 2012 Iditarod on Tuesday, March 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Aliy Zirkle's lead dogs after finishing the 2012 Iditarod, Tuesday, March 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Ramey Smyth mushes down Front Street in Nome to finish third in the 2012 race. Tuesday, March 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Ramey Smyth mushes down Front Street in Nome to finish third in the 2012 race. Tuesday, March 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo

Twenty-five year old Iditarod musher Dallas Seavey raised and pumped his arms in victory as he rode onto Front Street in Nome, tossing in a thumb's up to the cheering crowd as he pulled into the winner's chute to claim his place in history. And he's already displaying a talent for crowd-pleasing.

"Who loves the Iditarod as much as I do," he yelled to the people who'd assembled at the sidelines to get a glimpse of the fleet-footed pup with a racing pedigree that this year outdid himself and his Iditarod-champion dad. On Tuesday evening, Seavey crossed the finish line after racing 9 days, 4 hours and 29 minutes to become the youngest first-place finisher in the history of the race.

In the tradition of mushing legends that have preceded him, Seavey already has an inspirational slogan, which he tossed to the crowd during a victory interview: "Dream big. Go for it. Why not?"

But he also admitted that sometimes other motives come into play. "This time I wanted the truck!" he said, referring to the large Dodge Ram pickup truck that's part of winner's loot.

The truck was a coveted prize. Even Aliy Zirkle, who came in one hour behind the spry former national wrestling champion, couldn't resist bringing it up. "I'd like to tell Dallas I really wanted that truck," she teased after she had successfully pulled her own team beneath the burled arch that marks the finish line.

They'd fought hard to set the race pace and keep each other at arm's length. Both have won the 1,000 mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, and both had capable teams. Zirkle brought a tough group of tail-wagging young dogs to the battle. Seavey brought a menagerie of second-hand dogs he ultimately turned into champions.

Each had their hands full keeping an eye on the other -- a big enough headache to deal with in itself -- when late in the race, Ramey Smyth came after them from behind like a heat-seeking missile. Early in the race Smyth had his own troubles to deal with. A runaway team and sick dogs had slowed him down, and he found himself buried in the middle of the pack. But his ability to come back from behind is legendary, and this year, in what could easily have been called a long shot, he did it again.

These three racers -- the kid who lived his dream, the top-placed female living hers, and the man no race seems able to stop -- managed to topple the sport's royalty, installing a new regime.

'We needed every drop of speed'

Seavey has been around racing dogs his entire life. He grew up helping his father, Mitch Seavey, run a kennel and race, and now he's gone on to have his own kennel and his own career as a serious musher.

His 2012 Iditarod team was made up of dogs "somebody didn't want" -- hand-me-downs he bought from people who'd decided they weren't worth sinking time and training into. They are a motley collection of super-dogs -- variously small, big or shy. But Seavey saw something in them, and together they made history.

Zirkle held a lead early in the race and maintained it for some time. But all the while Seavey, behind her, was carefully planning a strategy based not on hustling to each stop, but being conservative. "We were not in a hurry and that's what won it for us," he said from the finish line in Nome.

By resting his team as much as possible, he kept them fresh for the fast-paced runs he was making between checkpoints, subtly gaining on the race's early frontrunners, including Zirkle. If he engaged his team's turbo too soon, he risked burning them out and zapping their ability to keep up. But if he coddled them, keeping them rested and running well over time, he felt he would be fast enough to leave challengers in his dust. Because Zirkle, Smyth and a handful of other racers had "awesome" teams, he needed to be careful with his.

"We needed every drop of speed to beat these teams," he said.

Seavey also turned to the power of positive thought, which he explained in the vernacular of sports psychology. If you don't believe you can win, you won't win. If you believe you can, then you'll do what must be done to do it. You could lose, and it will hurt, but you must take the risk in order to get the reward, he said.

'Old men sitting on the couch'

"We had a really good group of dogs," Zirkle said to a mob of reporters after she finished the race.

But in a long run lasting more than 13 hours from Kaltag to Unalakleet, she knew the race had changed. "That's kind of when Dallas said, 'See ya,'" she said.

She had high compliments for Seavey, admiring most his thoughtful approach to running his team. Too often mushers will "turn the key on the dog team and let it go" not realizing doing so can quickly burn out the dogs, she said.

She had brought a head-turning team to the race. Onlookers complimented it checkpoint after checkpoint. The dogs looked great, ate well, wagged their tails. They were alert and energetic and generally ready to go. But as the race went on, they just didn't have the reflexes she knew they were capable of.

They had become like "old men sitting on a couch in front of the television," she said. You may have to ask them repeatedly to get up and get you something, and they may grumble and drag their feet for a while, but once they get up they do "a really good job."

Coming into the finisher's chute, Zirkle flashed her big smile, looking thrilled.

From the sidelines, a 12-year-old girl shouted "Aliy! You rock!" Zirkle walked over, gave the girl a hug, then pulled her trademark red fleece hat from her head and gave it to her.

"She has nice dogs and she looks pretty," Stacie Outwater said when asked what is was about Zirkle that she liked so much.

And Outwater wasn't alone in celebrating Iditarod 2012's girl power. Village after village, women and girls were drawn to Zirkle, cheering for her to win because of the thrill they felt in the prospect of seeing a female champion.

Ramey Smyth's third place finish must have been like deja vu. Just as he chased Zirkle into Nome this year, Smyth last year found himself running after John Baker, desperately trying for a first place takeover. Though he launched valiant efforts, in both years he came up short.

Over the course of 18 races, he's been in the top-10 nine times. This year, he crossed the finish line 35 minutes behind Zirkle. He's impressed the mushing community for years. And this year, it seems his fan base is expanding.

As his four-year-old daughter, Ava, played at the back of his sled, a group of young girls on the sidelines shouted, "You're like our Justin Bieber!"

'Hey, youngster'

After Zirkle showed up in Nome, and while she was still in the finisher's zone, Seavey came up to congratulate her. "Hey youngster," she said when she saw him and his wife, Jen Seavey, waiting off to her side. They hugged, and then shook hands -- good sportsmanship between competitors who seem to genuinely like one another.

For Seavey, the win opens a new chapter in his family's long-running legacy as elite mushers and dog breeders. His father won the Iditarod in 2004. Throughout the training and dog handling for that victory, young Dallas was by his side.

Because Mitch Seavey is still pushing toward the finish line, he wasn't there to see his son come in. But in White Mountain, the last mandatory layover before Nome, he said if were there, he'd give him a hug and say "Right on!"

Between the two men there isn't much to say, Mitch said. They know each other so well the words don't have to be spoken, adding that given a perfect ending, they'd both be able to win. Neither one ever wants the other to lose.

Seavey and his wife have a young daughter, Annie, who he introduced beneath the arch as "the fourth generation" of Seavey mushers. Already she "thinks she lives in heaven with 100 sled dogs." And her favorite words are "dog, buckets, feed" and "puppies."

His grandfather and father are Iditarod mushers, and his wife has also completed the race. It's a full-on family legacy, one he's now solidly put his mark on.

"It's kind of what we do, I think," he said, hugging his two lead dogs, Guiness and Diesel, on the winner's platform.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com