When night fell on March 10, the winner of the 2014 Iditarod was going to be Jeff King or Aliy Zirkle.
By morning, the positioning of the leaders had changed three times. And in the end, it was Dallas Seavey who was first across the finish line in Nome, Alaska, early March 11, proving that the Last Great Race is never over ‘til it’s over.
The previous evening, King was an hour ahead of Zirkle, en route to a fifth Iditarod victory. But gale-force gusts and blowing snow knocked Team King off the trail and stalled it 3.7 miles from Safety, the final checkpoint before Nome. After 2.5 hours, King sought help from a snowmachiner to get to Safety, where he scratched at 11:50 p.m.
Zirkle pushed on, arriving in Safety at 10:57 p.m., but was still waiting for the storm to subside when Seavey and his team of seven dogs caught up shortly after 1 a.m. Seavey stayed in Safety for only three minutes, then pushed on into the wind and snow toward Nome.
Zirkle checked out of Safety at 1:35 a.m., 19 minutes after Seavey, her 10 dogs having had the benefit of 2 hours and 38 minutes of rest. But she had waited too long.
Seavey crossed the finish line at 4:04 a.m. to win his second Iditarod. Zirkle crossed the finish line at 4:06. Both of them beat the Iditarod record set in 2011 by that year’s champ, John Baker, of 8 days 18 hours 46 minutes 39 seconds. Seavey’s overall time: 8d 13h 4m 19s. Zirkle: 8d 13h 6m 41s.
Zirkle, meanwhile, has the distinction of placing second in three consecutive Iditarods, each time behind a Seavey – Dallas in 2012 and 2014, and his father Mitch in 2013.
“Shocker,” Iditarod executive director Stan Hooley told the Anchorage Daily News about this year’s finish.
“More than one surprise. First it’s Jeff, then Aliy, and now Dallas…Three leaders in three hours. It’s very unusual.”
The four Alaska Native mushers in the race were among the top finishers. Midmorning en route to White Mountain, the second-to-the-last checkpoint where mushers and teams take a required eight-hour rest, Michael Williams Jr., Yup’ik, was in 11th place; Baker, Inupiat, was in 14th; Peter Kaiser, Yup’ik, was in 16th; Richie Diehl, Athabascan, was in 17th.
Lack of snow made portions of the 1,000-mile trail particularly treacherous. Several mushers scratched after a bruising traverse of bumpy, rutty, snowless Dalzell Gorge, between Rainy Pass and Rohn. Two mushers, one a rookie and the other a veteran, scratched after their sleds were damaged beyond repair. Three mushers scratched because of injuries.
“From my experience, anybody who finishes a race like that is a winner in my book,” Mike Williams Sr., Yup’ik, a veteran of 15 Iditarods told Indian Country Today. He said just attempting the Iditarod is something to be proud of. “[Scratching] is not something to be ashamed of. The Iditarod is a real challenge.”
Williams said of Dalzell Gorge, “Dalzell has a lot of switchbacks, and that made it interesting when we used to drive 20 dogs in the Iditarod. It’s challenging, always rough, from the top of Rainy Pass. Two or three hours of that going down, that’s where most scratches happen.”
An investment in Alaska Native culture
Only four Alaska Native mushers competed in this Iditarod, down from nine in 2013. The reason, according to Williams Sr.: Lack of sponsorships.
Williams, a member of the Akiak Native Community Tribal Council and an alternate area vice president of the National Congress of American Indians, invites sponsorships from wealthier tribal governments and from corporations that are making money using Alaska resources. Supporting an Alaska Native musher is an investment in Alaska Native culture, he said.
For Alaska Native mushers, the Iditarod is more than a competition; it’s a way to keep alive the traditional form of travel on the routes of the ancestors. “We have the dogs and we have the history,” Williams Sr. said.
Josh Cadzow, a 27-year-old Athabascan from Fort Yukon who had one of the most impressive performances of the 2013 Iditarod, sat out the 2014 race because “I have a young kennel and no money, no sponsors.”
Cadzow has 35 dogs. He estimates the cost of training his team for the Iditarod at about $30,000. That covers food, travel, veterinary care, and his time off work to train. He works construction, and in the off-season traps or hauls wood. With a sponsorship, he could quit working in September to train with his team.
Cadzow seems to be a good investment. In 2013, he finished 14th in the Iditarod as a rookie – ahead of past champs Martin Buser, Lance Mackey and John Baker. That year, he also finished eighth in the Kuskokwim 300 and ninth in the Kobuk 440. In 2010, he finished seventh in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest and was named rookie of the year, and finished third in the Copper Basin 300.
Cadzow has received support from his Alaska Native corporation, Doyon, but he said the corporation’s sponsorship funds are limited. “You need a corporate sponsor,” he said.
Akiak got a half-day of snow in the winter months prior to the Iditarod, Williams Sr. said, which means that local training conditions were poor. “We’ve been training on glare ice all winter,” he said. Sponsorship money would have enabled Mike Williams Jr. and his team to travel farther so they could test their mettle in pre-Iditarod races.
“We limited our miles because of the cost,” Williams Sr. said.
Juggling training with an 8 to 5 job is no easy task. Williams Sr. used to train his dogs 100 miles a day. Before work, he’d feed and water his team, cook their food on his lunch break, feed them at 5 p.m., run them for four to six hours, and call it quits around midnight. Then, he’d get up in five or six hours and start over.
Despite poor local training conditions this season, Williams Jr. and team finished 11th in the Kusko 300 and likely 11th in this year’s Iditarod. One can imagine how they might do with the resources to fully train.