This year’s race is why I love this thing.
Coming into White Mountain, the last big stop before the final 80ish-mile stretch into Nome, the first four positions were held by:
1. Jeff King, a 58-year-old guy with four Iditarod victories going back to 1981. A native of Northern California, he grew up close to Jack London’s house, now a historical museum. I used to visit there when I was a kid, too. He read everything by London, got himself up to Alaska as soon as he could manage it, and never looked back. He’s a very friendly guy, cracking jokes while he welcomes visitors to his kennel for tours. If he wins, he’ll be the oldest winner in Iditarod history.
2. Aliy Zirkle, a woman in her mid-forties, who finished second in both 2012 and 2013. She and her husband, Allen Moore, run a kennel and share the dogs (Or “dawgs,” as they’re universally called in mushing. It’s not a regional thing; mushers say “dawgs” whether they’re from Arkansas, California or Canada.): he runs the A team in the Yukon Quest, the other big annual mushing event of the year (which he’s won the past two years), and she gets them for the Iditarod. Aliy may be the most beloved musher of all time — she’s got a beautiful personality, is insanely in love with her dogs, and knows how to rock Facebook. If she wins, she’ll be the first female winner since Susan Butcher won in 1990.
3. Dallas Seavey, a 27-year old guy born into a mushing family, who won in 2012, making him the youngest winner ever. In 2013 he came in fourth running rookie puppies (not sure whether they were his dad’s or his own), which is just unheard of; top ten positions usually go to teams of veteran dogs, while the young dogs take it easy and get the hang of the trail. Dallas has his own kennel now, and it’s a strong one. Dallas, a former Olympic wrestler, is pretty strong himself. He’s known for mushing in running shoes, the better to run alongside his sled, to make things easier for the dogs.
4. Mitch Seavey, 54, Dallas’ dad. Mitch won in 2013, his second victory and eleventh top-ten finish. His dad was a musher, and all four of his sons are mushers. The Iditarod is pretty much what he does, and he does it awfully well.
So, they came into White Mountain in those positions, with something like an hour or two between them. There’s a required eight-hour stop at White Mountain. Usually, whoever gets there first wins the race. So Jeff took off an hour before Aliy as the presumed winner.
Boy, that would have been boring.
The route from White Mountain to Nome goes along the coast, part of it along a spit of land with water on both sides. It rained recently, so everything is covered with lumpy ice. The whole trail has been like that, and mushers have been dealing with slipping sleds, injured dogs, and crashes all week. Along the coast, the ice is interspersed with driftwood. Snow machines (as snowmobiles are called in Alaska) clear the trail and put down markers one time before the race; there’s no further maintenance to the trail. As it happens, this time, the lead mushers are running the final stretch at night.
The winds along that coast can be fierce, but this year they’re worse than usual, blowing at 45 miles per hour and gusting up to around 70. This is on ice, remember, with water on both sides. There’s just enough snow to blow all over the place and ruin what little visibility there was to begin with. The actual temperature is somewhere around zero, never mind the wind chill.
Jeff has a malfunction, and has to stop to fix it a few miles before getting to the halfway-to-Nome checkpoint called Safety. His dogs hunker down while he’s doing this, and by the time he’s ready to go they’re too cold to move. He puts his sleeping bag over them, lies there holding them, waiting for the wind to die down a little. But the wind remains lethal. He figures he’ll walk to Safety alone, maybe carry the dogs in one by one, but it’s just too cold; the dogs are in danger of freezing to death. He ends up accepting a ride from a snow machine to Safety so he can get help for the dogs faster, which disqualifies him from the race. The snow machines are blowing over too, and one rider gets blown off towards the water, but everyone survives. When he gets back to his dogs he’s just relieved to find them all still alive.
Meanwhile, Aliy has passed Jeff and his team without seeing them. She’s too busy getting beat up by the wind herself. It keeps whipping the sled sideways on the ice, which pulls the dogs off-course, and puts everyone in danger of getting blown into open water. Somehow she makes it into Safety and finds out she’s in the lead, but at that point she’s more concerned about keeping herself and her dogs from dying than with winning the race. She gets her dogs as comfortable as possible, then goes inside the roadhouse to drink coffee and wait out the wind.
She waits at Safety long enough that Dallas catches up. He doesn’t stop. He doesn’t even wait around long enough to find out he’s in the lead. Why? Because his dad’s behind him, and the last thing he wants is to lose to his dad. So he lets the vets have their required look at his dogs, then takes off out of there like he’s being chased by demons.
Aliy figures if Dallas made it through, the weather must have improved. It’s still brutal out there, but the winds have died down some from hurricane force. She takes off in pursuit of Dallas.
Dallas is running this thing like a maniac. He sees a light right behind him now and figures it’s his dad’s headlamp. Somehow his dad has caught up to him, he thinks, which means the old man must be running his dogs at an incredible pace. He’s going to get caught up at any minute, and he can’t let that happen.
At the finish line, Dallas comes into Nome running alongside his sled, looking over his shoulder as he sprints down the street and under the burled arch. As he catches his breath and goes to take care of his dogs, he’s still asking if he beat his dad. As far as he knows, Jeff and Aliy came in hours ago, and are sitting around somewhere enjoying hot soup while their handlers treat their dogs to steak dinners. It takes more than a minute for the finish line crew to convince him he’s won the race — in record time, at that.
A couple minutes later, Aliy comes in second. She made up some time on Dallas, lord only knows how, but not enough. An hour or two later, Mitch comes in third.
That. Is what I call a race.