Mixed into this year’s Iditarod field of 33 mushers are a father and son who are the first pair of familial rookies to ever run the race at the same time.
“It’s amazing. It’s a 25-year goal, and we’ve been working a long time for this point,” said Gregg Vitello, 47, at the ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage. He was surrounded by yapping sled dogs on three sides as he clipped them to his sled’s gangline.
Vitello and his son, Bailey, run a kennel in Milan, New Hampshire, guiding tours, putting on educational programming and competing in New England sled-dog races.
“We have a great mushing community there in New Hampshire, Maine and New England,” said the elder Vitello. “It’s a big sprint scene. It’s not a distance-musher scene, so much, because it’s really hard to get the miles in. We don’t have that early snow.”
Though plenty of father-son duos have run together in past Iditarods (in 2012, three generations of the Seavey family — Dan, Mitch, and Dallas — finished the race), this is the first time in the race’s 51 iterations that two have done so as rookies, according to Iditarod Trail Committee communications director Shannon Noonan.
Back when Vitello started mushing in New England in the 1990s, there was more winter.
“It progressively gets less snow and more rain,” said Bailey Vitello, 25, adding that he hasn’t been able to train on a sled during December for several years. “I tell ya’, the winters the way they’re going, I don’t know how much longer you can be a ‘dog musher’ as much as a ‘dog walker.’”
Though the pair compete in regional races, conditions weren’t conducive for preparing to run a long-standing mutual dream: the Iditarod.
Last year, without much snow in the Northeast, Bailey went west, posting up near Yellowstone for the season, and ran most of the mid-distance races he needed to qualify for this year’s Iditarod. Gregg finished qualifiers this winter at the Copper Basin 300, where he took the red lantern.
“It took us three years, really figured out that New Hampshire just didn’t have the snow to train right,” Bailey said. “So we had to change locations up to here and make sure we had a spot where we could train. And it really just came together.”
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They found a spot in Nenana, not far from accomplished distance mushers like Aaron Burmeister and Bill Cotter. Compared to New Hampshire, it has made for ideal training: deep cold, good snow, mushing straight out of the dog lot instead of trucking the team off to a trail, only to contend with two or three dozen road crossings each practice run.
“This is where trails are made for dog mushers,” Bailey said.
They have 39 dogs in their combined kennel.
“Everything’s kinda blended together,” Bailey said.
The two generally swap dogs back and forth according to outstanding needs as they build teams going into races, though each has a core group of animals they keep to themselves.
In spite of that, they do not plan on running alongside one another during the Iditarod, as some siblings and family members have been known to do.
“We don’t plan on staying together,” Bailey said. “Even though our dogs are from the same kennel, we run differently.”
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They face some hard days ahead. This year’s field has nine rookies, though they come with a wide range of experience. Three of them ran last year, only to scratch at the tail end of their slog down the Bering Sea coast amid a fierce storm that required rescuers to bring them to safety. Rookie Eddie Burke Jr. only started mushing in 2021, after quitting his job driving a garbage truck in Anchorage, but has posted some impressive finishes in mid-distance races since then.
Both Vitellos framed their goals for the trail with comparable modesty.
“I want to finish the race with happy, healthy dogs,” said Gregg. “And I want to see my son do the same.”