March means different things to different people, most of them positive. For me March is the time for my favorite sports event – the Iditarod. My interest in this wonderful race dates back nearly two decades to a memorable trip my wife and I made to Alaska. Intermingled with many other enjoyable experiences on this trip were visits to five different sled-dog kennels, including meeting Susan Butcher and Jeff King.
It was hard for me to follow each year’s race until Internet access became widespread. Fortunately it has improved each year and now serves as an acceptable alternative. The combination of on-site coverage at checkpoints and GPS location of each musher, updated every minute, makes it possible for the fan to follow the race in nearly “real-time”.
As with most sports, Covid-19 forced the Iditarod’s organizers to make some significant changes. The normal route of the race from Anchorage to Nome is about 975 miles long, commemorating the 1925 Serum Run which delivered diphtheria antitoxin in time to head off an epidemic. This year, primarily to protect the Native American (Inuit) villages through which the second half of the race normally passes, the route was dramatically changed.
This year the race began at Deshka Landing, five miles along the normal route and safely away from habitation. In normal years gold mining ghost town Iditarod is the last checkpoint heading west before the native villages are encountered. This year the race’s sponsors decided to run the race that far, then turn around and retrace the route the mushers had already run. The combination of these changes reduced its length to about 850 miles.
This significant change generated considerable discussion among the analysts. The first half of the race includes a difficult climb to the top of the Alaska Range, then a steep run with many switchbacks down Dalzell Gorge on the west side of the Range. What would be encountered on the return trip, “up the down staircase”? How would the dogs react to turning around and retracing their steps instead of charging on to Nome?
Another major source of speculation centered around Dallas Seavey. He won the Iditarod four times between 2012 and 2016. Following the 2017 race four of his dogs tested positive for a banned substance. Although he never was specifically charged with a violation, Seavey’s response was to boycott the next three Iditarods before returning this year. How competitive would he be after sitting out for three years?
Prior to the race Ally Zirkle announced that this, her twentieth Iditarod, would be her final race. Easily everyone’s favorite musher, she had three straight second place finishes from 2012 to 2014, but had never taken a first. Was this to be her year?
When the race began, Ryan Redington immediately took the lead. He is one of six Redingtons who have competed successfully in this race.
As the pack navigated the Fairless Hills “Burn”, an area where the wind had removed much of the snow cover, Ally Zirkle’s sled hit an obstacle in the trail, throwing her off, giving her a concussion and a badly bruised shoulder. She rallied her team, mushed five miles to the next checkpoint, tended her dogs, and then announced she was scratching. A helicopter flew her to a hospital in Anchorage. Her fans were relieved to learn there was no permanent damage.
Alaska weather can be severe. One night at checkpoint Ophir there was chest-high snow and minus fifty-five degrees (probably wind chill) temperature.
The strategy of resting is key to success in this race. The mushers prefer to run for five or six hours, then rest for three or four. In addition, they are required to take two eight hour rests and one twenty-four hour long one atperience checkpoints. The voluntary rests may be taken at checkpoints or camping out along the trail.
As a result the race eventually resembles a leapfrog event. The front-runner stops to take a rest and a few hours later several pursuers charge past him, only to ex the same fate when their turn to rest comes. This year the leapfrog phenomenon involved Redington, Dallas Seavey, Aaron Burmeister, and Brent Sass.
The winner of a leapfrog contest is the competitor whose final leap reaches the finish line. After the fact, the analysts explained that Seavey’s strategy had put him in this position. He had selected his rest stops carefully so he could be the first to reach Skwentna, the final checkpoint an hour before his nearest pursuer. Thus Dallas Seavey, at age 33, won his fifth Iditarod, tying Rick Swenson for the most victories.
Second place went to Aaron Burmeister, in his twentieth try. He is a native of Nome; turning around at Iditarod and heading back to Deshka Landing must have been a surprise to his team. His previous best finish was a third place in 2015.
This year’s third place went to Sass, bettering his fourth place the previous year. Unlike most of the mushers who live close to civilization, Brent’s kennel is in “the bush”, in Eureka, near the Yukon River.
A “feel-good” story involved Dr. Larry Daugherty; his day job is as a radiation oncologist. At Iditarod he delivered Covid-19 vaccine to the mayor of Shageluk to be distributed to the native villages.
An interesting tradition is that of the Red Lantern, awarded to the last musher to finish. This year Dakota Schlosser left Skwentna in last place, two minutes behind Victoria Hardwick. Nine and a half hours later they approached the finish line neck-and-neck. At the last second Schlosser pulled ahead, besting Hardwick by two seconds! A great effort to avoid coming in last – or was he being a gentleman and allowing her to win her second Red Lantern?
Time for me to start counting down the months till Iditarod 2022! I hope it is able to get back to the Nome run.