NOME, Alaska--The 1,000-mile Iditarod ended in a drag race. Mitch Seavey, the 53-year-old father of last year's champion, held a scant but growing lead Tuesday night in the homestretch of the 41st Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Seavey expanded his lead over Aliy Zirkle, last year's runnerup, from 13 minutes to 25 minutes on the 49-mile run from White Mountain to Safety.
With just 18 miles left to race, Seavey appeared headed to his second championship. A late race surge by Zirkle and a steady but aggressive push by Seavey over the final one-third of the trail made for a mystery finish, expected late Tuesday night.
The racers arrived just 13 minutes apart in White Mountain, a village checkpoint where mushers press pause for an obligatory eight-hour break.Normally the 67 miles from White Mountain to Nome is a formality. If you get here 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," the Two Rivers musher said as the leaders rested in White Mountain for the dash to Nome. 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.)
Most of the same dogs pulled Zirkle's husband, Allen Moore, to a Yukon Quest in February.
Seavey is led by a kennel favorite, a 6-year-old, orange-brown husky named Tanner that has also competed in the Iditarod with Dallas's wife, Jen Seavey.If the Sterling musher wins, the Seavey family will boast the race's oldest champion and its youngest. Mitch's son Dallas was 25 when he won last year, and Mitch would eclipse four-time champ Jeff King as the oldest. King was 50 when he won his last Iditarod.
King said Tuesday that even a lead of a few minutes in White Mountain 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.
Zirkle's team was 35 minutes faster than Seavey's on the 46-mile run from Elim to White Mountain, a trip the two leaders made as Monday night turned to Tuesday morning. Her dogs arrived tails wagging. Aliy's team's coming together really nicely for her.
"And they're really coming on strong here late in the race," said Nome musher Aaron Burmeister, an early contender for the win until, he said, his dogs caught a bug and began flagging. "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," Burmeister said. "His are tuckered because they've been raced hard."But Jonrowe and King, running in 3rd and 11th place Tuesday night, 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.
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