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Julia O'Malley: A Q&A with Aliy Zirkle

  • Author: Julia O'Malley
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 15, 2014

Dallas Seavey got the big check and the truck for winning this year's extra extreme Iditarod, but it was the musher who rolled in minutes behind him, Aliy Zirkle, whose story, full of twists and turns, won many hearts and many fans. I reached her on her cellphone Friday in a coffee shop in Nome. Here's some of what we talked about:

JULIA O'MALLEY: Can you give me a picture of what was in your head when you left White Mountain?

ALIY ZIRKLE: I was pretty happy leaving White Mountain because my dog team looked so good and I felt pretty good too. ... There were a lot of people taking pictures and cheering me on, which always kind of makes me feel happy. I was thinking if something happened to Jeff (King)'s team, and since mine looked so good, there was a 25 percent chance that I could catch him.

Q. When did things get ugly with the weather?

A. About three and a half hours after you leave White Mountain, you come down onto the seashore and you parallel the ocean. ... I could barely hang on to my handlebar so I tied myself to my sled. ... Every time we got blown, my dogs would get rolled and my sled would get rolled. ... Every time I tried to walk to lead the dogs in the right direction, I'd get blown over. ...We were never on the trail because the wind would blow us off. In the daylight hours I could somewhat see what was coming, like driftwood and the ocean and ice. It got really bad when it got dark because I was never sure how close I was from the ocean. I'd say it was about two hours of, like, really bad for me. I was really close to not making it.

Q. What were you telling yourself at that point?

A. I actually started just laughing every once in a while. ... For the entire race I kept thinking, my husband (Yukon Quest winner Allen Moore, who also ran this year's Iditarod) and I had this little mantra that every day is going to be harder. It just sort of amused me. It was true that it kept getting harder and harder and harder and harder. ... When it was almost so hard I couldn't do it, it was almost humorous. ... I never got outwardly scared because that would scare your dogs. ... Getting to Safety was my goal, my ultimate goal. I had to get there. The race no longer existed. I had to get to Safety. ... We could perish out there was the alternative.

Q. Then what happened?

A. I got to Safety and, mentally, it got worse because I pulled in and Jeff King's name wasn't above mine. ... When I knew he was stopped out there and he'd been there for an hour or longer, I was just scared he was in a really bad way. ... It wasn't like I made the choice to not go. It was like physically the wind was pushing the opposite direction of Nome so you actually couldn't go. ... I was really worried about my team because a few of the dogs were limping. ... It turned out that most of them had snow filled into their booties. ... Once I got that resolved I felt a little better. They had climbed over driftwood and in ice holes. I thought something bad happened but really they were fine.

The wind had knocked out the power at the Safety roadhouse. There was no power and no heat. About 10 minutes after I got inside, Jeff showed up. And he looked at me. I said, "I'm so happy you're here." And he said, "My dogs aren't." And then my stomach really dropped. ... It wasn't safe to send snowmachines back out right away. ... Finally when they left to go get the dogs, I lay down for about 45 minutes and fell asleep. I woke up to people talking about headlights coming. They could see now, which you couldn't see before. ... I went out on the porch and ... I saw Dallas Seavey coming through. ... I thought, 'Crap, that means it's good enough to go.' ... I went to my team, I woke everyone up and hooked the crew up. I was able to follow the trail then. ...

Then, just to be honest with you, it was a completely different race. My Iditarod ended in Safety. The last 22 miles was me having fun, trying to catch Dallas. I came pretty close to catching him; I didn't, but like I said, my Iditarod ended in Safety, successfully, because the alternative was bad.

Q. Can you talk about the toll this year on your body. You have a torn hamstring?

A. Yeah, I do. ... And then I frostbit my left hand. And I have some bone bruises on my right hip. But overall I feel pretty frickin' good. .... I've been mushing for 20 years and I'm kind of known as a person who takes care of herself. ...The bone bruises, that's from the tough trail. The hamstring ... my leg got caught down into an iceberg and actually brought my team to a sudden stop. ... My frostbit hand, what happened was my over-mitts that I usually put on over my gloves, the wind had whipped them around so much and they were so tangled behind my back, I couldn't put them on. ... I tried to change gloves and put on a dry pair. ... I opened my sled bag and immediately the wind picked 'em up, took them out to the ocean.

Q. Do you physically train to get ready for the race?

A. Oh, yeah. ... The more fit we are the more fair it is to the dogs. We (Zirkle and Moore) both went into this race more fit than we were when we were 18. ... Honestly I do a lot of elliptical training. ... On a treadmill we do a lot of hill-climbing. ... Really it's an overall general fitness, like your core, keeping your core strong so you can hang on to the sled and go around corners. ... It's really helped.

Q. What did this race teach you about doing things that are hard?

A. When you put your head down and you go, you really have an amazing ability as a human being, as an animal to survive. ... I think it comes down to that. People don't realize how strong they are until you're pushed to the point where you have to do what you have to do.

Q. What are three characteristics you look for in a dog?

A. I like my dogs to be happy, I like my dogs to be hardworking and I like 'em to be honest.

Q. Honest? What does that mean?

A. I guess what that means is ... I give you a certain amount of freedom and you pay it back to me in what I've asked you to do. We let our dogs be dogs, but in the same sense, they're trained, they know what they're supposed to do. If you don't have a leash on, that doesn't mean you run over to another team and steal their salmon. ... I think I look for those three characteristics in dogs the same way I look for them in people.

Q. It's been more than 20 years since Susan Butcher, and the world has changed a lot for women since then, but there is still something about you running, a woman competing with men, that really speaks to your female fans. What is that about?

A. I have a lot of people who'd like to see the woman card on top one of these days. I totally understand and I wish I could do it just for the people who want to see that happen. To me it's not that big of a deal. I would like to do it for everyone, but I can't try harder than I am.

Q. You've got time. You can do it again. Wait: will you do it again?

A. I don't know. I would imagine. I think I have get some feeling back in my hand and have my hamstring heal up. My dog team's ready to do it again right now, but they need a musher.

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.

Julia O'Malley


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