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Lesser-known Iditarod tussles and sit-down strikes by dogs

  • Author: Jake Berkowitz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 16, 2016

The winner of the Iditarod was crowned Tuesday morning, but when Dallas Seavey crossed under Nome's burled arch, the real racing was just beginning for many mushers.

This year's record-breaking pace was so fast that only runner-up Mitch Seavey and Aliy Zirkle, who finished an impressive third, were on the final 77-mile stretch from White Mountain to the finish along with the champion.

Although Dallas Seavey's only challenge was that posed by his father, the race for a spot in the coveted top 20 was as stout as ever. Places fourth through 18th were all in White Mountain together, sizing up the competition for a final push to Nome.

We only need to look back to last year to see how much competition in the Iditarod has increased. A year ago, the top 20 finished within 27 hours of each other. This year, the top 20 were within 21 hours and produced some thrilling moments.

All Iditarod coverage: Standings, photos, videos and stories from the Last Great Race

The first great battle of the Iditarod was clearly the father-son duel between the Seaveys over the final 300 miles. This ended in a race record and a back-to-back one-two finish by the Seaveys.

In fact, if not for his son, Mitch Seavey would have won in 2015 and 2016, joining the illustrious ranks of four-time winners that now includes Dallas. He'd also be the fastest Iditarod musher in history.

Parents often dream of watching their children succeed, but it is guaranteed that Mitch will do everything possible in the next year to ensure his son doesn't win No. 5.

Highlight-reel finishes

Wade Marrs of Willow and Pete Kaiser of Bethel had an incredible showdown to round out the top 5. Marrs, who'd been steadily climbing the Iditarod ranks, arrived in Unalakleet some two hours ahead of his soon-to-be rival. By the finish, only 2 minutes, 53 seconds separated the youngsters.

Kaiser, 28, picked away at Marrs's lead with an incredibly fast team, but Marrs, 25, fended off the surge, and both men came into Nome utterly exhausted and drenched in sweat. Under the burled arch, Marrs turned to Kaiser and said, "I told you, you were going to have to work for it".

Nicolas Petit finished seventh with 14 screaming dogs and was so confident in his team's ability and speed that he chose to stay an additional 21 minutes in White Mountain, leaving only six minutes ahead of Ralph Johannessen. Petit's intuition was correct and he increased that lead to 20 minutes by the time he reached Nome.

Johannessen bested fellow Norwegian Robert Sorlie, a two-time Iditarod champion, to finish eighth. In a year that saw an astounding eight overseas racers from Norway, Johannessen was the first of them to cross the finish line. (Sixth-place Joar Leifseth Ulsom lists his home town as Mo I Rana, Norway but he is considered by most to be an Alaskan, despite lacking U.S. citizenship, because he has lived and trained in Alaska his entire Iditarod career.)

Johannessen was also able to hold off four-time champion Jeff King, who persevered after a snowmachiner rammed his team, killing one dog and injuring two others, and claimed his 20th top-10 finish in ninth place.

Willow musher Scott Smith rounded out the Top 10 with an ferocious kick to end his impressive race, edging Nome-born Noah Burmeister by six minutes.

Burmeister left the final checkpoint of Safety, 22 miles from the finish, 22 minutes ahead of Smith, but Smith's dogs had an extra gear and averaged nearly 10 mph on the last stretch, passing Burmeister between Cape Nome and Front Street. After five Iditarod starts with an average finish of 36th, vaulting into the top 10 makes Smith the prime candidate for the Iditarod's most-improved musher award.

However, Richie Diehl of Aniak may challenge Smith for that honor. Like champion Dallas Seavey, Diehl excelled during the final 250 miles. Into Unalakleet -- the first Bering Sea checkpoint -- the 30-year-old was 21st, but by posting some of the fastest run times on the home stretch, Diehl flew up the standings into 12th, his best Iditarod ever.

Diehl left White Mountain five minutes behind two-time runner-up Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof, but wound up more than 20 minutes ahead at the finish.

Jessie Royer of Montana and Ken Anderson of Fairbanks are no strangers to stretch-run battles. Five years ago, Anderson nipped Royer by one second to claim ninth place, but this year Royer exacted her revenge, beating Anderson by about three minutes to grab 15th place. She couldn't mask her joy when Anderson pulled in next to her in the chute.

The final battle in the Top 20 was between Brent Sass, the 2015 Yukon Quest champ, and Ray Redington Jr., the grandson of Iditarod co-founder Joe Redington Sr.

Sass, who had third place all but guaranteed 24 hours earlier, suffered a sit-down strike by his dogs, who weren't interested in running to Nome. After 18 hours of rest, Sass finally left White Mountain within minutes of Redington, who was able to hold off Sass and beat him to Nome by seven minutes.

Risk and reward

The Iditarod has gone from a 20-day race to one that takes less than eight-and-a-half days, with more than 20 teams capable of cracking the top 10.

But with increased competition, risks sometimes outweigh rewards. This year we saw teams pushing earlier and longer. The final place for teams to make a move is the 90-mile run from Koyuk to White Mountain, which is just 77 miles from the finish. In the past, some mushers have chosen to skip the in-between checkpoint of Elim to pass resting teams.

This year, however, few teams rested long in the village of Elim. In fact, the average rest time there for top teams was 45 minutes, compared to three hours a year ago. And this year's average was skewed by the only musher in the top 20 who took more than two hours there — Ray Redington's five-hour stop. Remove Redington and the average rest was 30 minutes.

Some teams benefited from their gambles. Eight teams broke the once-unthinkable nine-day barrier. but for other teams, the risk was clearly too much.

Sass, for instance, ran the 175 miles from Unalakleet to White Mountain on less than three hours rest. The result? A 20th-place finish after his dogs refused to run in White Mountain.

Likewise, Michelle Phillips of the Yukon Territory stayed only 30 minutes in Elim and had to stop overnight in Golovin when her team responded much like Sass's. After a 14-hour break, she arrived in White Mountain knowing that a once-promising shot at the top 10 was over. She wound up 25th.

Minnesota's Nathan Schroeder, champion of a Lower 48 race called the John Beargrease, chose to stay in Elim less than two hours in an effort to chase down Norway's Sigrid Ekran. Schroeder made it to White Mountain in fine fashion, but like Sass, Schroeder had a very difficult time getting his team moving down the trail after his eight-hour break. He managed to get the team moving and make some 50 miles Safety, but his dogs stopped there, 22 miles from the finish. Schroeder's hopes of a top-30 finish vanished.

My dogs stopped, too

I had a similar experience during the 2013 Yukon Quest on the notorious Eagle Summit.

Eagle Summit is defining feature of the Quest and many races have been won and lost on that steep climb of more than 3,600 feet. Dallas Seavey won his first and only Yukon Quest in 2011 because of Eagle Summit, taking the lead after race leaders Hugh Neff and Dan Kaduce failed to make it up and over.

My story is less epic, but one of struggle nonetheless. After a few attempts by my dogs to find the correct trail over the steepest pitch, they sat down quietly and looked back at me as though saying, "You walk up this crazy mountain and then we will run you to the finish line."

I quickly unhooked the team from my sled and walked them to the top — only to look back down and see Brent Sass climbing the summit effortlessly. In true Sass fashion, after reaching the summit, he came down to help carry my stuff as I pulled the sled up the peak. In a race in which both of us were contending for the win, it was a true display of sportsmanship.

Although the entire ordeal only took 30 minutes, it demonstrated the power of these dogs. Whether they are physically spent, mentally exhausted or simply overwhelmed and feel like that can't tackle the next obstacle ahead, the dogs always have the final word.

Jake Berkowitz is a three-time Iditarod finisher, including an eighth-place finish in 2013, when he was awarded the Alaska Airlines Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award. He has finished the Yukon Quest twice, both times in fourth place, and won the Rookie of the Year award in 2012. This is his first year of Iditarod commentary for Alaska Dispatch News and his final post of the race.

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