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Mitch Seavey claims victory in Iditarod 2013

Craig Medred, Suzanna Caldwell
Aliy Zirkle greeting fans on Front Street in Nome. March 12, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Mitch Seavey mushing down Front Street in Nome to win the 2013 Iditarod. March 12, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Mitch Seavey, Iditarod 2013 champion. March 13, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Mitch Seavey and his wife Jen on Front Street in Nome. March 12, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Aliy Zirkle mushing down Front Street in Nome, where she placed second in the 2013 Iditarod. March 12, 2013
Loren Holmes photo

A tired Mitch Seavey crossed the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Nome just before 10:40 Tuesday night to get a hug from his wife and claim a long-awaited second victory in the Last Great Race. 

Three to 400 people lined Front Street in downtown Nome for the finish. Seavey was bawling in the finish chute. Iditarod officials quickly whisked him away. The usual finish-line interview with the winner couldn't be heard over a public address system that either wasn't turned up or was malfunctioning.

Seavey, 53, last won in 2004, and some had begun to dismiss him as a one-time wonder. His son, Dallas, won last year and Mitch was back in seventh. Those roles were reversed somewhat this year, although Dallas still appeared headed toward a top-5 finish.

Mitch's victory helped one of the oldest families in the history of the Iditarod put its imprint on the Super Bowl of sled-dog competition in a big way. Mitch, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula community of Sterling, is the son of Dan Seavey from Seward, a member of the Iditarod Hall of Fame. Dan raced in the very first Iditarod in 1973 and finished third.

He has been involved with sled dogs ever since. He joined Iditarod founder Joe Redington and others in tireless support for preservation of the 1,000 mile Iditarod trail to Nome through the now-deserted Interior gold mining country once known as Alaska's Inland Empire. His sons and grandsons grew up around sled dogs and now run a business that takes summer tourists to Alaska on sled-dog tours atop glaciers. 

Mitch this year hit the Safety checkpoint about 20 miles out of Nome with but 24-minute lead on Aliy Zirke from Two Rivers, a past winner of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada. But he started to steadily pull away from her as the race climbed over 675-foot Cape Nome. A GPS satellite tracking device on Seavey's sled showed his dogs making steady progress mile by mile.

They appeared to be chugging along at the same 7 to 8 mph pace into which they'd settled along the coast. The trackers -- there was also one on Zirkle's sled -- at times Tuesday had shown her closing to within less than a mile of Seavey, but his dogs always managed to pull away.

On the trail that winds up and through the Topkok Hills before dropping to the Bering Sea beaches, Seavey appeared a man catching his second wind. From the air he could be seen pedaling the sled forward with one leg while the other stood on the runner. Sometimes he used a ski pole as well to help the dogs power forward. He was going at it so hard he looked something like a crazed octopus flailing away at the snow.

Zirkle seemed to be struggling more with the fatigue. Her arms were at times propped on the handlebar of the sled, and she appeared to be resting over them. In both teams, though, the dogs were plugging away like contented little machines, gobbling up the miles toward the end. 

She was about three miles behind as the duo left Safety, and many were hoping for a sprint to the finish down Nome's Front Street that never materialized.

A disappointed Zirkle once again had to settle for second, arriving into Nome at 11:03 p.m., with that same 24-minute difference between she and Seavey. She was also the runner-up behind Dallas last year. If Zirkle had been able to close the gap, she would have become the first woman in more than 20 years to claim an Iditarod title.

Before leaving the scene, Seavey came over to tell Zirkle that she would one day win the race. 

Zirkle did take some time to chat with reporters. She said she tried her best to catch Seavey, but her prized lead dog had an off day and just refused to break into a lope. She said she had a stomach ache, and maybe the dog did, too.

"I was going for it, but that slippery little sucker (Mitch), I couldn't catch him,'' she said. Zirkle was greeted in the chute by her mother, Mickey, who was also crying. But the crowd loved her daughter. When she came up the street, they chanted "Aliy, Aliy, Aliy."

She heads home to the Interior hoping it will one day be the victory chant at the end of one of the world's toughest races.

Battered and hallucinating

At a late night press conference in Nome, Seavey and Zirkle both talked about the toils of the trail that left them battered, tired and hallucinating.

Zirkle said she once thought she got within 100 yards of Seavey's team, but realized later that it was a hallucination. Mitch said that every time he saw a dark object -- a raven, a black rock -- he took it to be Zirkle, who was dressed in black.

Seavey said it gave him a special satisfaction that two Iditarod records now stand that could stay with the Seavey family for some time: the oldest musher ever to win, Mitch; and the youngest, his son Dallas last year.

Zirkle said the strange nature of the 2013 race made it kind of fun. Four-time Martin Buser from Big Lake took off from the start, ran 180 miles nonstop to Rohn, took the race's one mandatory 24-hour stop there, watched the rest of the teams go by, and then came off his 24 to bolt to the front and stay there for days. Everyone was left wondering just what the hell he was up to.

"Nothing was predictable...and that made it fun," Zirkle said.

Seavey said it also complicated the tactics in what is always a tactical race. Good teams don't always come out on top, he said, noting he thought he had one of the best last year and still finished seventh.

"It's not always the best team that wins," he said, "but I think it is this year."

He plans to be back next year just as strong. And he thanked his 2004 Iditarod winning team. Most of the dogs in the team this year are offspring from that team, he said.

An Iditarod dynasty?

Before Seavey took over the title of oldest-ever victor, the distinction belonged to Jeff King from Denali Park who was 50 when he won in 2006. King looked in position to repeat that feat just a couple days ago, but his team fell off the pace. He looked on the way to third place Tuesday night with young Dallas, 25, just behind. 

Dallas won the Iditarod last year in front of what appeared to be a wave of up-and-coming young mushers, but the old men have battled back strong this year. It could be a breakthrough for Mitch, who claimed an Iditarod victory in 2004 and then spent nearly a decade trying to claw his way back into the winner's circle. The closest he got was third in 2005. In the final hours of the 2013 Iditarod, which saw him dueling head-to-head with the team of Aliy Zirkle from Two Rivers over the last 90 miles of the 1,000-mile course, Mitch seemed sure to best that.

Mitch made it from Willow -- a wide spot in the road north of Anchorage -- to Nome in 9 days, 7 hours and 39 minutes, according to the Iditarod Trail Committee. That was about 13 hours slower than the record set by Alaska Native musher John Baker from Kotzebue in 2011. Baker was still on the trail Tuesday night, back in 20th. His struggles, and that of other past champions, underline the competitiveness of the race these days. 

Dallas Seavey may have been the exception. His team, which started the race slow and rarely was mentioned as being among the top contenders, looked to be on his way to a fourth or fifth place finish. No family in Iditarod history has ever put two teams in the top five. What the Seaveys were doing Tuesday had all the markings of that thing called a "dynasty."

The final calculations

Earlier Tuesday, A friendly Bering Sea coast welcomed the front runners to White Mountain and the Iditarod home stretch that covers 80 miles up and over the Topkok Hill to the beaches east of the city of the Golden Sands and finally over 675-foot Cape Nome to the city itself. The skies above the scenic village along the Fish River were blue, bright, sunny and almost cloudless. The temperature stayed above zero. It was perfect for the comfort of the most important competitors in the race, the dogs.

They rested in the warm sunshine as sleepy mushers stumbled around the checkpoint to make preparations for the final push or grabbed a nap themselves. Race leader Mitch Seavey, first nodded off while staring at stat sheets. Red-eyed and windburned, Aliy Zirkle from Two Rivers, the woman chasing Seavey, complained she had the "wobbles."

Through the day, other mushers clomped into the checkpoint in their heavy winter gear to heat their food in the microwave while race officials running a little late scurried to get organized. The checkpoint had just received its shipment of “human” food and people were scrambling to feed the many volunteers. A cauldron of homemade caribou stew bubbled on the stove. A large pot of oatmeal was cooking in the break room.

Four-time champ Jeff King from Denali Park took some time to talk about what had gone on with his race. He grabbed the lead in the standings after the long, windy 50-mile crossing of the Norton Bay ice from the tiny community of Shaktoolik on Monday. King came up off the ice into the Koyuk village checkpoint as Mitch Seavey was feeding and bedding his dogs, grabbed dog food, and kept going.

It was bold move. King explained at White Mountain that his plan had been cut the rest stop and to push on another 50 miles to the next checkpoint in Elim, rest the team there, and then try to hold the lead over the chase pack as the race clawed its way over a climb known as "Little McKinley," after the big mountain of the 49th state, on the way to a mandatory 8-hour rest stop at White Mountain.

The plan backfired, he said, when the team "gave me the middle finger" a few miles short of Elim.

“The trail started getting worse and worse,” he said. “Then I got to the flats and it seemed like I was on the surface of the moon.”

“I was sure a snow hook was dragging under the sled, that was the way the whole thing felt.”

The "snow hook" is a hook-shaped device mushers smash into the snow to anchor the sled when they stop. It is used to prevent the dogs from going forward.

Tired, battered and sore from the trail, the 57-year-old King said he still thought he had a chance to catch Mitch and Zirkle, though the assessment seemed questionable. He was more than hour behind that pair, and they were only minutes apart. The competition between them was almost certain inspire their teams to pick up the pace. it was hard to tell if King was thinking straight.

He slurred his words when he spoke, and dragged his feet. He asked for help reading the numbers on the microwave when he warmed his vacuum-sealed lasagna. He was clearly sleep-deprived, badly so, and being sleep deprived is a little like being drunk. It muddles your thinking. King expressed confidence he could catch the leaders. He said it is in his personality to chase, not lead.

“A one, two, three hour stint in the lead is enough to send me to the looney bin,” he said.

Still, he did recognize he was in a difficult position, and he lamented what had happened on that run to Elim.

“If it had been cloudy and a different trail, it'd be a totally different outcome," he said.

Dallas Seavey of Willow, the defending Iditarod champ and Mitch's son, followed King into White Mountain just ahead of Ray Redington of Wasilla, a grandson of race founder Joe Redington. They joked about Dallas's dad apparently falling off his sled on the way into White Mountain.

“Yeah, just checking if his shoelaces were untied,” Dallas said to Redington.

The conversation between father and son earlier had gone like this:

Mitch: Fell off the sled on the way in, “I was dead, man.”

Dallas: “What else would you rather be doing today?”

Mitch: “There will be no regrets."

Dallas: “I don't think I'll be catching up with you guys by any stretch of the imagination. But I'll see you soon.”

Dallas said that after this race there could be a change in how people approach the Iditarod. The now-common method of trying to grab a big lead early and hold on along the Bering Sea coast doesn't seem to be working. Four-time champ Martin Buser from Big Lake did that this year and then faltered badly.

“Everyone's coming from behind and crushing it,” Dallas said. “People are going to start reassessing how far out ahead they want to be.”

It was a back to the future moment. Coming from behind was how Rick Swenson, the race's only five-time champ, dominated the competition at his peak in the last 1970s and early 1980s.

This year also goes to show that long runs aren't good in any extreme, Dallas added.  Noting how he'd come from seemingly out of nowhere to fourth into White Mountain, he said a lot of people had been asking “did you make a move?”  He hadn't. He just kept doing what he was doing, running a steady race, and the field came back to him.

"You don't (have to make a move)," he said. "You just have to be there at the end.”

A couple places back behind Seavey and Redington, Jake Berkowitz from Big Lake was worrying about hanging onto a top-10 finish. He was a little spooked about making one wrong move on the last 80 miles of trail to Nome.

“You can't have a bad run or you could end up in 14th or 15th,” he said. Berkowitz was eighth into White Mountain. Eighth at the finish pays $30,800. Fifteenth is worth only $17,500.

The winner takes home $50,400 and a brand-new Dodge truck. The runner-up collects $47,100.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com and Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com