NOME, Alaska — Mitch Seavey scored one for the AARP-eligible crowd Tuesday night by becoming the oldest champion in Iditarod history.
Seavey, 53, outdueled Aliy Zirkle on the final stretch of the 1,000-mile race.
“This is for all the gentlemen of a certain age who think it ends at 50, ’cause it doesn’t,” Seavey said after crossing under the burled arch with a team of 10 dogs.
The Sterling, Alaska, musher steadily pulled away from Zirkle on the 67-mile run from White Mountain, where just 13 minutes separated the two mushers in the afternoon.
Led by Tanner, a 6-year-old, orange-brown husky who is a kennel favorite, Seavey coasted down Nome’s Front Street at 10:39 p.m.
“I gotta go congratulate my lead dog Tanner,” Seavey said after his team came to a stop. “He’s probably the best I’ve ever had.
“Tanner is happy to be a sled dog and he makes it look easy.”
Seavey’s winning margin of 23 minutes, 39 seconds made it the fourth-closest race in Iditarod history. Seavey finished in 9 days, 7 hours, 39 minutes, 56 seconds. Zirkle finished in 9 days, 8 hours, 3 minutes, 35 seconds.
“I was going for it,” Zirkle said, “but that slippery little sucker, I couldn’t catch him.”
As she traveled from White Mountain to Nome, Zirkle watched Seavey’s winding tracks in the snow. She tried to guess if the musher was speeding up or slowing down based on whether the tracks stayed smack in the middle of the trail or drifted to the side.
“And you don’t know,” she said. “But it’s kind of fun to guess.”
“And then for about 30 miles of the trail we’re high above treeline in these rolling mountains, and every time I would come up over the hill I would see him coming back down the other side,” Zirkle said.
Zirkle, 43, said she thought she saw Seavey’s yellow sled after Safety, but it was just a hallucination.
Meantime, Seavey was imagining he was seeing Zirkle all across the tundra.
“I saw the raven Aliy, I saw the fuel tank Aliy. And the upside-down boat Aliy,” Seavey said. “Everything I was seeing back there I thought must be her … I would continue to scare myself that she was catching up to me.”
Zirkle’s time is the second fastest by a woman. Her time last year — 9 days, 5 hours, 29 minutes, 10 seconds — is the fastest.
“You’re gonna win this thing,” Seavey told the Two Rivers musher as he shook her hand.
Seavey replaced Jeff King as the Iditarod’s oldest champion. King, who was poised early Wednesday morning to claim third place, was 50 when he won his fourth victory in 2006.
Mitch’s son Dallas was 25 when he won last year’s race, giving the Seaveys the oldest and youngest champs in race history.
Both of those distinctions came at Zirkle’s expense. Dallas beat her by 59 minutes, 44 seconds last year.
Tuesday’s victory was the second for Mitch — he won his first in 2004 — and marked his 19th finish in 20 attempts.
“I hate to go off into the sunset knowing I only did it once in 20 tries,” he said, “so it’s sorta a validation.”
The finish was the 12th for Zirkle, who was hoping to drive her team to its second thousand-mile championship of the year. Nine of the 10 dogs she finished with — Quito, Olivia, Scruggs, Scout, Beemer, Nacho, Chica, Biscuit and Willie — helped Zirkle’s husband, Allen Moore, win the Yukon Quest last month in Fairbanks.
“My dog team is my heart,” Zirkle said. “They’re my family and they’re fantastic.”
Seavey will collect $50,400 and a new pickup truck for his victory. Zirkle gets $47,100 for second place.
Seavey had to ward off both King and Zirkle in the last one-third of the race.
Patience paid off for him on Monday, when he resisted the urge to follow when King blew through Koyuk to temporarily claim the lead. Seavey stayed at the checkpoint for another three hours and was able to overtake King on the run to Elim.
He owned a 48-minute lead leaving Elim on Monday night, but Zirkle came on strong during the overnight run to White Mountain and sliced 35 minutes off his lead.
Seavey did himself no favors on that run — he twice fell asleep and fell off his sled, according a Facebook post by his son Danny Seavey.
Normally the 67 miles from White Mountain to Nome is a formality. If you get to White Mountain with a comfortable lead, your only job is to avoid screw-ups during the roughly 10-hour trek to the finish.
“Run my tush off,” she said early Tuesday as the leaders rested in White Mountain.
Zirkle was trying to become the third woman to win the race and the first since Susan Butcher’s final championship in 1990.
Her sled dogs are a small, pixie-like team that descended from a favorite leader named Cha-Cha, are led by pink-nosed veteran Quito. (That’s short for Poquita, smallest of her litter of Spanish-named puppies.)
Though Zirkle trailed by a scant 13 minutes at White Mountain, King noted that even a lead of a few minutes there can hand the frontrunner the advantage over the final run west across rolling hills to the coast.
“You can get out of sight and the second team doesn’t have the advantage of drafting off you visually,” said King, who said he led DeeDee Jonrowe by about seven minutes out of White Mountain en route to his 1993 title, which he won by more than 30 minutes.
Nome musher Aaron Burmeister like how Zirkle’s team looked in White Mountain.
“Aliy’s team’s coming together really nicely for her. And they’re really coming on strong here late in the race,” he said. “Mitch has been racing up with me at the front of the pack for a good portion of the race, back and forth. I know his team is pretty tuckered, about like mine right now. His are tuckered because they’ve been raced hard.”
But Jonrowe and King said they watched Seavey’s team along the trail and saw formidable dogs.
“I saw (the team) going into Grayling, on the Yukon a lot. Just powered through that wet, nasty, sludgy stuff,” Jonrowe said.
While former champion Martin Buser of Big Lake led at many of the early checkpoints thanks to an unheard of 20-hour run to start the race, it was after his team came off the Yukon River that Seavey staked his move.
By Elim, what had looked like a Seavey-King duel became a Seavey-Zirkle duel. Zirkle rested her dogs for about an hour less than Seavey, cutting Seavey’s lead to 48 minutes.
Zirkle got even closer on the run to White Mountain. Her headlamp alerted Seavey that she was closing in.
“I knew she was coming. I saw her light after I left Elim, when we got to the mountains,” Seavey said. “Typically my team does well in the mountains and I didn’t see her anymore until we got here on Golovin Bay.”
The clang of church bells announced Seavey’s arrival to White Mountain at 5:11 a.m. Tuesday. The musher was still unpacking at
5:24 a.m. when Zirkle slid to a stop, bouncing on her sled.
“Mitch is up for a race, aren’t ya?” Zirkle said to reporters — and a nearby Seavey — as she finished feeding her dogs.
“You calling me out?” Seavey said, heating water a few yards away. He was going to get his sneakers out for the finish, he joked.
“Can I borrow your sneakers? My boots are still wet and nasty from the rain,” Zirkle replied.
Hours later, snowmachines zoomed to the frozen Fish River as volunteers counted down to Seavey’s departure for Nome. Already, 11 teams were parked a few hundred yards from ski planes roaring for takeoff. Dallas and Mitch Seavey hunkered at the elder Seavey’s team.
“I don’t think I’m going to be catching up with you guys by any stretch of imagination. But I don’t think you’ll have to wait too long,” Dallas said of his ETA in Nome.
Under clear skies, Mitch resumed his race.
“Tanner! Gee! Line up!” he commanded his team of 10 dogs before driving off at 1:11 p.m.
Zirkle made last-minute inspections before following 13 minutes later. She walked down her line of dogs, rubbing their faces and checking collars. Once Zirkle was on the sled runners, she called to Quito, who began a whistling howl.
The musher and the rest of the team joined the chorus, then gave chase.
Late Tuesday, the pair was crossing the Bering Sea shore where coastal wind rakes the snow and Seavey and Tanner could be seen marching west toward Nome.
Quiot and Zirkle, kicking from the sled, followed about two miles down the trail.
By the time Seavey reached Safety, 49 miles from White Mountain and 18 miles from Nome according to the race’s GPS tracker, his lead had stretched to 25 minutes.
A race that looked too close to call just a few hours earlier belonged to him.