When it comes to winning the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, two facts jump out of history: One, old folks don't win, and two, Mushers win early or they don't win at all.
Jeff King became the only musher age 50 or older to win the race when he notched his fourth victory in 2006. It was his last victory. He remained a top 10 finisher into his 50s, but after a third-place finish last year, he retired. He said he was too old to win.
If King is right about the handicap of age, there are several potential frontrunners you can scratch from the list of Iditarod contenders this year: Five-time champ Rick Swenson from Two Rivers, who is 60; four-time champ Martin Buser from Big Lake; former champ Mitch Seavey from Sterling; two-time runner-up DeeDee Jonrowe from Willow; and former runner-up Paul Gebhardt from Kasilof. All are in their 50s. All have been regular top 10 finishers for years. But all but Gebhardt dropped into the second 10 last year, and they're likely going to have to battle to avoid ending up there again this year.
So scratch Swenson, Buser, Jonrowe and Gebhardt from the list of contenders no matter how strong they show early.
Then, consider the chances for some others. No musher who has been trying to win Iditarod for more than a decade has ever won.
Seavey and the legendary Susan Butcher went nine races before winning. Seavey notched his lone victory in 2004. Many believe Butcher would have won in her eighth race in 1985, but she had to drop out after a moose stomped her team just north of Knik. She came back to win the next year, and three more victories followed.
Buser won his first race on his seventh try, not counting the years the then-young man from Switzerland took purebred Siberian huskies north on the trail for Alaska breeder Earl Norris. Those cannot be considered racing years. Siberians are jokingly referred to as "Slowberians" for a reason. Buser spent his early years learning how to camp and survive in the Iditarod wilds, not how to race. Once he started racing, he won early and regularly before starting to decline. He had four victories between 1992 and 2002. His best finish since 2002 is fourth.
The story is much the same for other champs. Rick Mackey, defending champ Lance's half brother, won on his sixth try in 1983. He has since retired from Iditarod. Robert Sorlie from Norway, the first foreigner to win, did so on his second try. He won one more before retiring. Doug Swingley from Lincoln, Mont., the first Outside musher to win the race, won on his fourth try in 1992. There were three more victories by 2001. Then the wheels fell off. Swingley teams became also-rans, and he retired after the 2007 race.
There is a consistent pattern here. Five-time champ Swenson won on his second try at Iditarod, King on his third, Lance on his sixth.
None of this bodes well for some of the mushers expected to be top contenders this year. Jonrowe not only has age going against her; she also has the other history staring her in the face. She has run the race more than two dozen times without a victory. Hans Gatt from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada, has run 11. He was second last year. If history is any indicator, that's as close as he'll ever get to the winnner's circle. Gebhardt is in the same situation as Jonrowe with double negatives working against him. He is past 50, and he has run 14 races without a victory.
John Baker from Kotzebue, who many believe would have won last year if not for a navigational error outside of the Cripple checkpoint, has run 15 times without a victory. Ramey Smyth from Willow has run 16 times without a victory. Both are likely to be in the top 10 this year, but don't expect them to win. Ramey's brother Cim from Big Lake is running his 10th Iditarod and might have a chance. The same can be said for Ken Anderson from Fairbanks also running his 10th. But history warns this could be their do-it-or-forget-about-it year.
Gatt, Baker, Ramey Smyth and Gebhardt were all in the Iditarod top-10 last year. If they are removed as potential champions, who's left with a real chance to unseat Lance as champ? Four names stand out:
-- Dallas Seavey from Willow. The 24-year-old son of Mitch won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks earlier this year and was eighth in the Iditarod last year. He is running his fifth Iditarod.
-- Sebastian Schnuelle, a 40-year-old German immigrant to the Yukon Territory, Canada who has spent much of his time training in Alaska of late, was seventh in Iditarod last year. It was his his third straight top-10 finish. He is running his sixth Iditarod.
-- Hugh Neff from Tok, nicknamed "Huge Mess," followed Schnuelle and Dallas Seavey across the finish line last year. He is running his ninth Iditarod this year. The 43-year-old former golf caddy from Evanston, Ill., has a reputation for taking teams out too fast and then fading, but over the course of the past three races he has steadily moved up from 25th to 15th to ninth.'
-- And lastly there is Ray Redington Jr. from Wasilla, the 35-year-old grandson of the late race founder and Iditarod legend Joe Redington. Ray is running his ninth Iditarod. He was 11th last year. It was his best finish in a steady line of progression. It might be now or never for him.
The history, then, says the musher most likely to unseat Mackey should be among these six: Anderson, Cim Smyth, Dallas Seavey, Schnuelle, Neff or Ray Redington, unless of course there comes that rare bolt out of the blue. Libby Riddles was 20th in her second Iditarod in 1984. She'd actually done better the year before, finishing 18th. But in her third Iditarod in 1985, she became the first woman to win. It was the last great victory by a virtual unknown, but it fit the pattern of winning early or never winning at all.
The Riddles of 1985 hadn't run at the front long enough to learn all the ways you can lose the race. Thus, she took what could have turned to be a foolish gamble and challenged the weather. She mushed into a Bering Sea storm that held other, arguably smarter, mushers back. She emerged on the other side of the storm with her Iditarod victory sealed. She would never win again. The Iditarod is a race a whole lot easier to lose than to win, and the more a musher has run at the front without winning, the more he or she seems to focus on the many ways to lose or at least to lose position.
There becomes, as Ramey Smyth has confessed, a tendency to avoid the gamble necessary to finish first when a musher knows that by racing more conservatively he can be almost guaranteed third or fifth or even a nice, safe 10th. It's an honor to finish in the Iditarod top 10. It's a risky proposition to try to win. It takes boldness and maybe even a little craziness.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.