High winds battering Iditarod mushers during final stretch to Nome

2014 Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey celebrates his victory in Nome. (Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission)

2014 Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey celebrates his victory in Nome. (Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission)

The 42nd annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race proved to be one of the most dramatic from start to finish. Dog teams were lost, ganglines were broken, mushers were injured – some severely.

The trail from Anchorage to Nome threw everything possible at mushers from rocks to tree stumps to hurricane force winds.

The Iditarod is by no means easy, but even the most veteran of mushers were surprised by what they faced in this year’s race.

Before he left White Mountain, Jeff King was confident he’d set his team up for a solid 5th championship.

“My team charges into these checkpoints with more reckless abandon than many other teams do. No matter how tired they are, they dig deep and just have to make me step on the brake to come in.”

If King’s team had been able to hold out against hurricane-force winds blowing off Norton Sound, he would have become only the second musher to win the Iditarod five times. The 58-year old would have also become the oldest musher to win and in record time, but it was not to be. The team was blown into a pile of driftwood roughly four miles out of the Safety checkpoint. King spent more than two hours trying to untangle his dogs, but they shut down and he had to ask someone on a snowmachine for help.

It’s a story this year’s second place finisher, Aliy Zirkle relayed to winner Dallas Seavey during a post-race press conference in Nome.

“So I got to Safety and the sheet was blank and I said ‘Where’s Jeff?’ they said ‘you didn’t see him?’ So we were all highly concerned about all the teams so I had two dogs I was really worried about and myself, so I said ‘to heck with it, I’m staying,’” Zirkle said. “And then some snowmachiners came in and by golly if they didn’t have Jeff on the back of the snowmachine.”

As Seavey fought his way through stiff winds toward Nome, he had no idea what was happening to the competition in front. He didn’t know King was out and he had no idea Zirkle was struggling to rework her race plan inside the Safety shelter cabin.

“It was really, really bad out there and it was the safest thing for me to do to just get my act together and not leave,” Zirkle said, chatting with Seavey. “So I took a nap, had some coffee, listened to people talk about how bad it was outside and then I saw [Seavey] go through, so I left.”

When Seavey spotted a headlamp behind him, he assumed it belonged to his father Mitch.  He thought he was racing for third place.

He came sprinting down Front Street in the wee hours of the morning, red faced and panting.  He collapsed on the back of his sled where he sat for a few minutes after his dogs crossed the line.

It’s the second time the younger Seavey has beat out Zirkle for the top spot.  It’s also the third consecutive year Zirkle has finished behind a Seavey in second place.  Dallas’s father took the win last year.  Zirkle was visibly disappointed, but she says it’s not the worst that could have happened.

“Sure yeah, hindsight blah, blah, blah, but second’s pretty good,” Zirkle said. “It’s better than scratching.”

Clearly the favorite in this year’s race, the crowd chanted her name even after she arrived in Nome.  She says that kind of support is humbling.

“Over the last eight days’ I’ve really run into the people who’ve… I’ve brought them down the trail with me in my heart and it’s very motivating,” she said.

Just over three hours after he claimed his second Iditarod championship, the younger Seavey waited for his father to finish the race in third place.  The two hugged, but Mitch Seavey had no idea his son had won.

The elder Seavey came into Nome, clearly exhausted and completely bewildered.

“We crashed and tipped and whatever countless times,” he said.

The wind is still blowing wildly out along the coast of the Bering Sea.  Teams are fighting to travel over thick, uneven glare ice without getting too close to the open ocean. The drama that ensued for the first few mushers may not be the last in Iditarod 42, as teams continue to make their way for the finish line.