6 takeaways from an Iditarod unlike any other

Bethel musher Victoria Hardwick claimed her second Red Lantern Award as the final finisher in the 49th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race at 12:22 a.m. Thursday, marking the conclusion of a Last Great Race like no other.

Just like the 2020 race, one of the main stories this year was the coronavirus. In 2020, the Iditarod coincided with cascading global impacts from COVID-19 — a stock market crash, bans on international travel, school closures. Those significantly disrupted the race, pulling spectators and even a competitor off the trail as the scope of the international crisis came into focus.

The 2021 Iditarod, both in its lead-up and execution, was dominated by attempts to adapt public health lessons learned over the past year for preventing viral spread and grafting them onto a scaled-back long-distance race in the wilderness.

The chief adaptation was changing the route to limit viral exposure. The Iditarod, historically a 1,000-mile race from Anchorage to Nome, saw both of those cities eliminated from the route. The race became an 832-mile round-trip journey between Deshka Landing and the remote checkpoint of Iditarod.

Beyond the coronavirus, the race was about extreme cold and the novelty of two-way traffic. It was about the triumphant return of Dallas Seavey, who with his fifth victory tied Rick Swenson’s record as the winningest musher in race history, and it was about the scary crash that hospitalized perennial contender and fan favorite Aliy Zirkle.

Here are some key takeaways and moments from this year’s race.

1. COVID-19 can disrupt plans anywhere, even on the Iditarod Trail

The Iditarod Trail Committee established protocols to prevent viral spread with the goal of zero transmission, and they nearly met that goal.

The exception was a COVID-19 case involving musher Gunnar Johnson, 52, of Minnesota, who was withdrawn from the race after multiple tests showed he was infected with the coronavirus. His race ended in McGrath, and officials believe he was exposed to the virus a couple days before the start of the Iditarod by a dog handler who became infected outside their quarantine bubble.

After Johnson’s positive test result, mushers underwent additional testing on the return trip to Deshka Landing. Officials also tried to track down two mushers who shared a tent with him at an earlier checkpoint.

When it came to social distancing and masking, the level of observance varied from checkpoint to checkpoint. In McGrath, the race’s primary hub, masking was strictly enforced within the entire dog lot. In other checkpoints, a more lax attitude pervaded outdoors and indoors; at the Iditarod checkpoint, unmasked volunteers were observed crowded into a tiny cabin.

2. Dallas Seavey: The return of the king

Seavey hadn’t run an Iditarod since 2017, when a confusing and controversial doping allegation against him caused an uproar and eventually contributed to leadership changes in the Iditarod’s governing body.

He made a triumphant return, winning his fifth title in 7 days, 14 hours, 9 minutes, 57 seconds to match Rick Swenson as the race’s winningest musher.

[After a long battle with the Iditarod to regain his reputation, Seavey calls win No. 5 ‘icing on the cake’]

“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,’ " Seavey said. “Now that’s today, it’s finally the next one, and we got it.

“That’s huge, man.”

Seavey was focused and efficient on the trail as he moved methodically through chores at ice-cold checkpoints. He was noncommittal about returning next year, but at age 34, it’s clear he will remain a dominant figure in the sport for as long as he wants to be.

3. Terrain and weather still matter

With the race rerouted to an out-and-back route, mushers crossed the Alaska Range twice, something many initially feared, given the bare, treacherous conditions encountered along stretches in and out of the Rohn checkpoint while outbound.

Several inches of new snow diminished the hazards significantly on the return trip, but the second crossing was a steep, arduous process for some teams.

Veteran musher Ryan Redington of Skagway said he barely got through the climb up the Happy River Steps.

“If it was any steeper or any bigger, I think we’d still be there,” he said. “I had too much weight in my sled. ... I pulled on the gangline, I pulled on the sled, there were times I was on my knees and pushing because I couldn’t get any traction. It was very slick to stand up. But we eventually made it up. And we’re here.”

Scaled-back amenities at checkpoints due to COVID-19 protocols meant more camping out than sleeping in shelters, and the weather did not make it easy. Temperatures as low as minus 55 were recorded at checkpoints along the trail.

Veteran racer Jeff Deeter of Fairbanks came prepared with a slumber system that included a voluminous sleeping bag, a bivy and a tent fly. He would put his sleeping bag on top of straw and wrap his parka like it was a blanket.

“Comfy as all get-out,” he said. At least for a while: “I’m comfortable for about an hour, then I start shivering, which means it’s time to get up.”

4. Head-on passes can freak out dogs

For the first time in history, Iditarod teams made head-on passes on the out-and-back route, a novelty for many teams.

After he dropped his lead dogs, Matthew Failor of Willow ran a significant chunk of the race with an untested leader, Motörhead, part of a litter named after iconic heavy metal bands.

Motörhead’s performance was a hit, except when it came to head-on passing.

“He just stopped. He was freaked out,” Failor said of his team’s first head-to-head pass with another team. “He didn’t know what to do, he was so afraid of the other dog team coming.”

Failor led Motörhead into deep snow on the shoulder of the trail, let the other team pass and started his team again.

”We’re moving and moving and here comes another team, and he just stops and freaks out. But once we were out there by ourselves, he was perfect.”

5. A small field got even smaller

Even before the race began, a significant number of mushers withdrew, many of them from out of state or abroad. Defending champion Thomas Waerner of Norway pulled out because of pandemic-related travel complications.

A field of 46 mushers ultimately set off on March 7 from Deshka Landing. Ten didn’t finish, including 51-year-old Two Rivers musher Aliy Zirkle, a three-time runner-up who was running her final race before retirement. Her final run ended on the second day of racing when she crashed on glare ice 5 miles from the Rohn checkpoint.

Zirkle suffered a concussion and dislocated shoulder and was medevaced overnight. Days later, she is still recuperating at home.

Another top contender, 2019 champion Pete Kaiser of Bethel, was among those who scratched. He’d said his dog team was experiencing problems — “digestive issues and bugs we’ve picked up” — and wasn’t at full strength.

6. There were more sick dogs than usual

No dogs died this year during the Iditarod, but many got sick.

Mild ailments are par for the course and typically manifest in diarrhea and loss of appetite. But Iditarod chief veterinarian Stuart Nelson said there were “significantly more” sick dogs than usual this year.

“We’ve taken some samples this year just to see if we can find some sort of specific indoor pathogen or organism that might be causing the diarrhea we’re seeing,” he said. “It’s certainly possible there could be some kind of a unique organism that’s causing the problem.”

The out-and-back course meant teams were doubling back over stretches of trail that hundreds of dogs had already traversed, leaving excrement, scraps of food and various detritus. Doubling back after the turnaround point gave teams more exposure to potential contaminants.

“Dogs eat poop, ya know? They’re weird like that sometimes,” Failor said. “I was really careful not to let that happen.”

Cantwell musher Paige Drobny said she had to scrap her initial competitive schedule because her team took ill early on.

“First run, I was like, ‘OK, things have changed,’ ” she said.

“When they’re not eating, they can’t perform at their highest level. They just weren’t 100% the entire race.”

Drobny took her 24-hour layover earlier than she originally planned to help the dogs recover, and they did. But the reprieve didn’t last long.

“They were good and eating again when I left my 24, and then they got another bug right after that,” Drobny said. “So then at Nikolai the second time I was like, OK, I’m gonna scratch or I’m just gonna stay here for a long time and then just coast in.’ So that’s what I did.”

The Daily News’ Marc Lester contributed reporting from Deshka Landing. Zachariah Hughes reported from the Iditarod Trail and Anchorage.