Mitch Seavey is back to defend his record-setting Iditarod championship — a championship that left many in shock and awe and asking, "What is next?"
Seavey is also back to defend his southern route championship. In 2013, the last time the Iditarod took this route, Seavey won with a time that was a full 28 hours slower than his record run last year.
Has the Iditarod changed that much in five years? We should find out this year, because the race is shaping up to be one for the ages.
With extensive snow from Anchorage to Nome, a grueling and remote southern route and a Bering Sea that is lacking sea ice, we are in for a treat. Eight of last year's top-10 finishers are back along with an arsenal of hot-shot rookies.
Who are the teams to watch in the star-studded affair?
Three potential champions
Mitch Seavey, reigning champion
The Pros: Seavey, the oldest champion in race history, won in 8 days, 3 hours, 40 minutes last year. He not only beat his closest pursuers by more than 2.5 hours, he did it with ease, poise and speed never before seen on the Bering Sea coast. Perhaps if Seavey had been pressured a little more, we could have seen a sub 8-day race.
Seavey is bringing back 12 of his 16 dogs from last year, and although he himself is a year older, at 58 he is showing no signs of slowing down. I bet every musher has him as the team to beat.
The Cons: There are two areas to watch with Seavey:
He has perfected the art of "carrying sled dogs," allowing up to four dogs at a time to rest while the others are still running, but this year the Iditarod Trail Committee has made it increasingly more difficult for mushers to carry dogs. This year they can only carry dogs in front of them, which is much different than last year, when you could carry them behind you in your seat, or prior to 2017, when you could carry them in a sled trailer. We'll see Sunday what Seavey has come up with for a new sled design to allow him to keep carrying dogs — a strategy that propelled him into a league of his own.
The second area to watch is how he handles the trail conditions. In the past Seavey was known as the team to beat when the trail got tough and slow, but in recent years, either because of trail conditions or the way he's been training, Seavey has been all speed. Which one we see this year — the Seavey of old or the Seavey of new — could be the determining factor.
Nicolas Petit, third in 2017
The Pros: Petit is not only coming off an unbelievable performance in 2017, when he finished third with 13 dogs, less than 3 hours behind Seavey, he is also coming off of one of the most, if not the most, dominant seasons in mid-distance racing history. Petit is undefeated this season, claiming wins in the Knik 200, Copper Basin 300, Willow 300 and Tustumena 200.
The Cons: There seems to only be one major obstacle standing in his way: does he have 16 championship-caliber dogs? Petit has openly talked about using a couple of dogs from 2018 Iditarod rookie Jessie Holmes as well as outfitting Emily Maxwell with an Iditarod team for her rookie run. Petit's biggest strength has always been the incredible bond he has with his dog team; how will these late additions change the dynamic? Petit doesn't have a large kennel. Between borrowing dogs from Holmes (one can only assume these were Holmes's 17th and 18th choices) and sharing dogs with Maxwell, the big question is what is Petit bringing to the starting line?
Joar Ulsom, fourth in 2017
The Pros: He has a race portfolio everyone dreams about — five Iditarods, five top-10 finishes. Ulsom is a perennial contender and last year's race showed that he can finish fast. Ulsom was the leader of the chase pack and was one of only four mushers to finish in less than 8.5 days. The Norwegian's biggest strength is he is built tough, and so are his dogs. What Ulsom lacks in top-end speed (something Petit and Seavey clearly have) he makes up for in sheer grit and determination. If the trail turns into a slog and Seavey's and Petit's speed become nonfactors, watch out for Ulsom — he will always be within reach of the leaders.
The Cons: While Ulsom is always a contender, he has yet to win a race in Alaska. Winning is an art form and leading is an uncomfortable position to be in if you haven't been there before. Will Iditarod be his first win? Maybe …
The rest of the top 10
Jessie Royer (fifth in 2017, finishing with 16 dogs) — Mushers always have Royer on their radar and her performance last year solidified her need to be taken seriously. Although she has a had a sporadic career of placing in and out of the top 10, after last year one can only assume she'll be back in the top 10 again.
Wade Marrs (sixth in 2017) — Marrs has catapulted from a back-of-the-pack musher to a top-5 Iditarod kennel and seems fearless about taking the lead. In 2017 he went out hard and was the leader out of the halfway point in Huslia. Marrs had to pull back the reins a little after that and finished 15 hours off the winning pace, but his ability to run at the front and still finish in the top 10 will be invaluable experience this year. Marrs is also the president of the Iditarod Official Finishers Club and has had his hands full this year with a seemingly endless supply of issues plaguing the Last Great Race, so we'll see soon if the distractions have been a detriment to Marrs or have just fueled him.
Ray Redington (seventh in 2017) — Grandson of race founder Joe Redington Sr., Redington always seems to be able to pull it together for the Iditarod. This year he's been training Paul Gebhardt's dogs as well as his own — Gebhardt placed 10th last year but pulled out of this year's race after being diagnosed with cancer. If Team Norway is an indication of what happens when top kennels combine their dogs, Redington may be set up for his best performance to date. If Redington starts charging hard early on, keep an eye on him.
Aliy Zirkle (eighth in 2017) — Zirkle has not been outside of Iditarod's Top 10 since 2011, and with 13 of her 16 dogs coming off a victory in last month's Yukon Quest, she is poised for an incredible performance. Only a few short weeks ago her husband and kennel partner, Allen Moore, won the Quest and finished with all 14 dogs he started with. The team's resiliency will be perhaps Zirkle's most valuable asset. It's hard to find any cons in a team that blows away the competition in a 1,000-mile race, but if there is one, it's a lack of top-end speed toward the end of the Quest. Was the slower pace due to the bitter cold, the trail, the dog team, or something else we will never know? If Zirkle can find some speed to go with her team's resiliency, she'll put on a show.
Pete Kaiser (ninth in 2017) — Kaiser, more commonly known now as 4Pete after winning his fourth consecutive Kuskokwim 300, is back for his ninth Iditarod. Kaiser has tried some different strategies in recent years — last year, he was running shorter than everyone else (averaging four hours the first part of the race) and resting shorter than everyone (averaging two hours the first part of the race). Kaiser's fast and hearty dogs are used to training on the Kuskokwim River, which this year saw little to no snow, so we'll see if his dogs can adapt to the onslaught of snow ahead of them.
Jeff King (11th in 2017) — King, one of three Iditarod champions running this year, owns 20 top-10 finishes, including four victories. Part of his team is coming off the Quest, where they were driven by Alex Buetow, an Iditarod veteran and Quest rookie. He placed eighth, 28 hours after Moore. Is this an indication of what is to come for King? Or was the game plan to build the dogs in the Quest? Only King knows, but my guess is King once again has a championship-caliber dog team.
Aaron Burmeister (last ran in 2015) — In recent years Burmeister handed over his team to brother Noah, who placed 11th in 2016 and 29th in 2017. But Burmeister finished his last Iditarod in third place, finishing in just under nine days. Predicting a top-10 finish for him is a slight gamble, but Burmeister has lived the Iditarod his entire life and you can only imagine he's bringing the same caliber team we're used to seeing from him.
Rookie of the Year
The battled for Rookie of the Year is expected to be waged between Matt Hall and Jessie Holmes, two mushers who have as many similarities as they do differences. But the edge seems to go to 2017 Yukon Quest champion Hall.
Hall placed second to Moore in this year's Quest, and while Quest success doesn't always transfer over to Iditarod success, keep an eye on him. Look for Hall to be more conservative earlier on. His recent races have shown he doesn't have much high-end speed, but he's willing to take some risks later on, like he did in 2017 when he pulled off a 16-hour run to win the Quest. In this year's Quest he was openly concerned about leader problems, but hopefully he has that fixed and is ready to race to Nome.
Holmes, who is a true 1,000-mile race rookie, has had some mid-distance success, most notably a victory in the Yukon Quest 300. He has a fast team, he likes to go out fast and he isn't afraid of leading. His biggest hurdle will be reminding himself this is a 1,000-mile race. If Holmes can hold his team together for the first 500 miles and can build them into a 1,000-mile race team, we could see a fun race for Rookie of the Year.