Being in the Top 10 has a nice ring to it, an aura that suggests, "I've made it." When it comes to the Iditarod's Top 10, nothing could be truer. This is an elite group of mushers and very rarely does someone accidentally join this group.
Iditarod competition and talent has only increased in recent years, and the entire Top 10 of last year's race is back, so we should be in for a treat.
Every musher who enters the Iditarod has a different goal. Some aim to win, some are hoping to make the Top 10, some are looking to finish with as many dogs as possible. Everyone hopes to make it to Nome.
Perhaps a musher's greatest asset is knowing his or her dog team's ability, setting realistic goals and racing within that bubble. Someone who races with a goal of Top 10 and only has the capability of 30th will surely fail. The opposite holds true as well.
What Dallas Seavey has done — what all champions before him have done — is race to win and nothing less. To do so, the musher must manage his or her team and run to the dogs' and musher's limit.
Who can win the Iditarod?
That's a loaded question. In a dog race anything can happen, but what Dallas Seavey and Mitch Seavey have accomplished since 2012 (the last musher not named Seavey to win was John Baker in 2011) is not only unbelievable, but also unprecedented.
But that doesn't guarantee victory this year. Here are my picks for the mushers most likely to win and those most likely to make the Top 10.
— Dallas Seavey: Eight consecutive top-10 finishes and three wins in a row — all of them coming in less than nine days. Hands down the favorite for the 2017 Iditarod.
— Mitch Seavey: Two-time Iditarod champion and back-to-back second-place finisher behind his son. He was also the only musher anywhere close to Dallas at the finish of the 2016 race. Mitch's team has always embodied the motto, "When the going gets tough the tough get going." With the heavy snow most of Alaska has seen this winter, if the wind picks up at all on the Yukon River and turns the race into a slug fest, the elder Seavey — already the oldest winner in race history at 53 — could very well extend that record.
— Nicolas Petit: Which Petit will show up? The bold risk-taker seen in this season's Copper Basin 300, when he called it quits 30 miles from the finish, or the calculating veteran who has won the Iditarod's Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award? Petit made it into this elite group of mushers because of his ability to take a risk, combined with his ability to consistently reach the Top 10 (something he's done in three of the last four years) and finish with large teams (14 dogs in both 2015 and 2016). Petit is coming off a strong season of middle-distance racing, winning the Aurora 50-50, the Knik 200 and the Willow 300. He'll need a flawless performance, but if he chooses to take a smart risk early and get a lead on the Seaveys, he might just have enough to win. Remember this: Petit finishes strong and collected the Fastest From Safety to Nome award last year.
Top 10 contenders
Breaking the nine-day barrier has been done by 13 mushers in the 44-year history of the Iditarod. Last year, an astounding eight teams crossed under the burled arch in Nome in less than nine days. For that reason (among others) most of the sub-nine-day mushers from last year have earned a spot in my top 10.
That being said, the Iditarod has never seen competition like this year's race and some incredible dog teams will fall short.
— Aliy Zirkle: A crowd favorite with five consecutive Top-5 finishes, it's hard to imagine Zirkle producing anything different. The question may be how her team rebounds after a very cold and very slow Yukon Quest. Zirkle's husband, Allen Moore, who routinely races the main string of dogs in the Yukon Quest, finished an impressive third. However, Moore had the slowest time among the top-five finishers over the final 70 miles to the finish. Will Zirkle's Iditarod team be primed for the Iditarod, or will it still be rebuilding from the Quest?
— Wade Marrs: Numbers rarely lie, and Marrs is moving in the right direction. He has cut his finishing spot in half each of the last four years, going from 32nd to 16th to eighth to last year's fourth place. If he continues, he's bound for glory in 2018.
— Pete Kaiser: Also known as 3Pete after winning his third-consecutive Kuskokwim 300 earlier this year, Kaiser has shown he has what it takes to reach the Top 5, and with his core of veteran dogs making another appearance this year, he may be headed for an impressive run.
— Joar Ulsom: We haven't seen much of Ulsom in races since the 2016 Iditarod, but he's never been outside the Top 10 in all four of his Iditarods. With two sub-nine-day races, he has cemented himself as a contender.
— Jessie Royer: She had her best showing in 2015 with a fourth-place finish and is coming off her rookie run in the Yukon Quest. Although Royer's eighth-place finish was more than a day slower than Matt Hall's championship Quest run, Royer's run times for the last 200 miles were some of the fastest the race has ever seen. With 12 trail-hardened Yukon Quest finishers, look for Royer — who's known for holding back the first half — to start pushing the pace earlier than normal.
— Jeff King: What would the Top 10 be without King? He loves to run an upbeat and fast dog team, and in recent years he has held back early and surged late to accomplish that. With early trail reports describing a very slow trail and sub-zero temperatures expected for the first third of the race, the question remains: how will King's desire for a speedy team and his dislike for the cold mesh with what this Iditarod offers?
— Richie Diehl: The only musher on this list who has never been in the Top 10, Diehl's best Iditarod was last year's 12th-place finish. But Diehl had another strong performance in this year's Kuskokwim 300, surging in the second half and taking third. Look for him to come on strong along the Bering Sea Coast.
Jake Berkowitz has run both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod. He won the Iditarod's Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian award in 2013, finishing eighth. After finishing fourth in the 2012 Yukon Quest, he was named Yukon Quest Rookie of the Year.