DESHKA LANDING — Dallas Seavey of Talkeetna made history Monday morning by capturing his fifth championship in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, matching Rick Swenson as the race’s winningest musher.
Driving an all-star team of sled dogs, Seavey reached the Deshka Landing finish line at 5:08 a.m., completing this year’s shortened race in 7 days, 14 hours, 8 minutes and 57 seconds.
His family was among a small crowd gathered at the finish line. After walking down his line of dogs and petting each one, Seavey joked about the meaning of No. 5 before getting serious about it.
“It comes after 4, I guess,” he said with a grin, and then his tone changed.
“Ever since I won my first Iditarod and was the youngest to win, people have been asking about ‘Oh, you’re gonna get five, you’re gonna get five,’ and I’ve always said, ‘I’m gonna get the next one and someday five may be the next one.’ Now that’s today, it’s finally the next one, and we got it.
“That’s huge, man.”
One of his main leaders, 8-year-old Gamble, was a member of his 2016 team.
“He was with me in ‘16 and five years later he wins again,” Seavey said. “Sweet, sweet guy.”
Gamble is the offspring of Guinness and Diesel, leaders from Seavey’s 2012 title team. Two other team members, North and West, are the offspring of Reef, a Golden Harness winner who was on three of Seavey’s championship teams.
“It’s pretty fun to be here with his sons now,” he said.
Seavey seized the lead early Sunday morning on the 40-mile run from Finger Lake to Skwentna. He left Finger Lake with a 15-minute lead over Aaron Burmeister and reached Skwentna with a 61-minute lead.
Burmeister, a 45-year-old who calls both Nome and Nenana home, reached Deshka Landing in second place more than three hours after Seavey, at 8:23 a.m. It was his best finish in 20 Iditarods.
“It wasn’t quite good enough,” he said, laughing. “Twenty Iditarods, it’s been a long time. My first race was 1994 when I was 18 years old, so it has been a lot of years of chasing this race.
“But it’s not just a race, it’s an event, it’s a lifestyle, it’s something we love and love being a part of.”
Brent Sass of Eureka recorded his highest finish in six races by placing third. He finished at 9:41 a.m.
Seavey was lucid and analytical moments after the race, showing no sign of sleep deprivation. He said he felt in charge of things shortly after getting through the Alaska Range and Farewell Burn on the trip north in this year’s out-and-back race.
“I was in a position of control after the first third of the race,” he said. “I was not worried about people catching up, what I was worried about — I shouldn’t say worried, what I should say is focused on — was when they catch up, I wanna have a team that’s ready to race them.”
Seavey matched the win record Swenson established 30 years ago at age 40. Swenson, who logged 36 starts, won five times in his first 16 races — in 1991, 1982, 1981, 1979 and 1977.
The race was Seavey’s second since he collected his fourth win in 2016. Five other mushers have won four races — Susan Butcher, Doug Swingley, Martin Buser, Jeff King, Lance Mackey — but all were stymied in efforts to win No. 5. Seavey said he didn’t think about tying Swenson’s record during the race, afraid he might jinx himself.
Once victory was secured, he said he would enjoy it for a while, “revel in it, and then it’s time to move on to the next one and forget about it and focus on the next thing, whatever it is,” Seavey said. “... We’ll dwell on the numbers or the records when we’re too old to keep doing it. That’s the time to look back at it, but for right now I want to keep moving.”
Seavey’s triumph came in an Iditarod unlike any other. Because of COVID-19 mitigation plans, it is the first race in 49 years to end somewhere other than Nome, and at 832 miles it is the first race significantly shorter than the fabled 1,000-mile distance.
Seavey is a third-generation musher who grew up in Seward, the longtime home of the Seavey clan. His grandfather Dan arrived there as a schoolteacher in 1963 and was an Iditarod pioneer; his dad, Mitch, is a three-time Iditarod champion whose last win came in 2017, when he beat Dallas by almost three hours.
Mitch skipped this year’s race, and Dallas assembled a team of the best dogs from the two championship kennels. Ten dogs were in harness when Seavey crossed the finish line.
Teams contended with deep snow and temperatures that dipped below minus-50 in the Interior. A planned 20-mile loop between the abandoned mining towns of Iditarod and Flat was eliminated a day or two before mushers got that far due to what race marshal Mark Nordman called “eyebrow-deep” snow.
Burmeister, who previous best finish came in 2015 when he placed third, leapfrogged with Seavey for much of the inbound run, but every time he pushed past Seavey, Seavey pushed back, usually with a well-rested team.
“I’m proud as hell of the dogs and the race we ran,” Burmeister said during his Skwentna layover Sunday. “Goal was to come in, be real conservative (in) the first half, stack the rest early and build the team as the race went on and be able to pour the coals on ‘em from McGrath to the finish. And we did. … We were able to catch Dallas, finally, and Dallas has an amazing team.”
Seavey’s drive for five was interrupted by a three-year break following controversy after his runner-up finish in the 2017 race. Four of his dogs tested positive for tramadol, a banned substance, and Seavey waged a long battle with race officials to clear his name.
He competed in Norway in 2018 and 2019 and didn’t race last season. For his return to the trail this year, he sported a signature look — a thick, nordic-style sweater that inspired a Twitter account called Dallas Seavey’s Sweater.
Marc Lester reported and made photos from Deshka Landing and Beth Bragg reported and wrote the story from Anchorage.