After winning his first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 2004, Mitch Seavey spent nine years trying to get his second title, all the time thinking that if he ever reached the burled arch in Nome first again “that’d be it.” That he’d hang up the sled and retire from the sport.
But when the 53-year-old Sterling musher did just that in early March, becoming the race’s oldest winner, thoughts of retiring were far from his mind. And they still are, he said.
“When it happens, I feel like, ‘We’ve got this figured out again,’ or whatever it is,” he said of winning. “It is one of those things that is extremely difficult to get out of. So, we love it. I think the bottom line of it is for me that I’m very blessed to have something that I enjoy this much and I’m reasonably good at, and not a lot of people have that blessing in their lives.
“So I think I’m staying with it.”
Seavey spoke at a Soldotna Chamber of Commerce luncheon Tuesday at the Soldotna Sports Center about his recent win, race strategy, his son Dallas — who the year before became the race’s youngest musher to win — and numerous other topics between audience questions.
The musher said he wasn’t sure if he was proud of being the oldest musher to win the race. But, he’d take the honor nonetheless.
“The thing about Dallas’ record, he’ll never be able to break it again, but I can always go forward and get the oldest musher another time,” Seavey said drawing chuckles from the audience.
With his father Dan, 75, still occasionally mushing, and sons Dallas and Conway, who won the Tustumena 100 race in February and placed second in the Junior Iditarod, also racing, Seavey said he thinks his family has mushing down pat.
“We’ve trained and bred and produced sled dogs for obviously decades now and going back to my dad in the 1960s and we finally feel like we’ve got it figured out a little bit,” he said.
He said the Seavey strategy is guided by the inherent strengths of his sled dogs’ genetic lines. He said his dogs tend to be hard drivers, like to run fast and that they won’t quit easily, which means Seavey won’t allow them to do 80- or 100-mile runs as it takes too much out of them.
Seavey said his strategy this year — in a “roller coaster” race that he felt he was either winning or losing depending on the day — was to pace himself unlike other mushers who pushed too hard in the wrong areas.
Such was the case, he said, when second-place musher Aliy Zirkle pulled in only 13 minutes behind him at White Mountain, he said.
“She had outrun me by a half hour from Elim to White Mountain,” he said. “It appeared she had a faster team. What I hoped at the time — and it turns out I was right — that she had kind of overrun her dogs a little bit trying to catch up to me. It was actually a better strategy for me to let my dogs take it easy and get to White Mountain without stressing them.”
Zirkle told the Alaska media that she would be able to overtake Seavey in the mountains between White Mountain and Nome, but Seavey said he didn’t stray from his strategy as he stopped to feed his dogs shortly after coming out of the hills onto the beach.
“When I finished feeding my dogs and put my bucket back in my sled, I looked back and there she was right there about a half a mile behind me across this lagoon,” he said. “I was like, ‘Well boys, now’s the time.’”
Seavey said the race was warm and most of the trail was soft with portions of water and overflow from the Yukon River. He said they were similar conditions to those he experienced in the Tustumena 200, which he said he was amazed he won because his dogs don’t usually travel fast enough to win short races.
“For some reason we seem to do really well when the conditions are really difficult, particularly in warm weather,” he said. “Not being from the Interior we are more used to warm.”
Seavey gave much credit to his lead dog Tanner, a 6-year-old male that was born and raised in his kennel that will likely be the father of a few more puppies.
“He’s one of those dogs that goes over and above the call of duty, so to speak, but he is so athletic that it doesn’t really seem difficult for him,” Seavey said.
One audience member asked Seavey if his dogs knew that they had won.
“What they know is that I’m happy,” he said.
After winning, Seavey said he went straight from Nome to New York City to appear on CBS’ This Morning Show with Dallas, make other appearances and conduct phone interviews. Another New York highlight was getting his picture taken with the Central Park statue of Balto, the famous sled dog who led his team on the final leg of the 1925 Nome serum run.
Seavey said he was thankful to “escape” much of the clamor by then taking a trip to Mexico.
As for this year’s fourth-place Dallas, Seavey said his son is going through start-up kennel pains. He said some of the good dogs Dallas got from his and other mushers’ kennels were getting older and he had to rely on some of his own younger, inexperienced dogs.
Seavey said he has had high expectations of Dallas since his son decided to become a professional musher.
“It went without saying in our family that he was going to win the Iditarod and probably be the youngest to win the Iditarod — that’s just the way Dallas goes about things,” Seavey said. “He had a number of advantages. Being raised in a competitive kennel he could be 25 years old and have 20 years of experience, which very few people have at that age.”
As for Conway, Seavey said the 16-year-old wants to be a musician, but naturally has the family skill.
“He’s a really good musher and every year he is kind of hesitant,” he said. “Then when it gets snowy and everyone is mushing, he’s like, ‘Well, maybe I should run those dogs,’ then he goes on and does really well. I think he will run the Iditarod, but he is likely not to be a career musher.”
But now as just that — a career, older musher, Seavey has the advantage of knowing complex sled dog racing strategy. But the sport is evolving and incorporating technologies like GPS trackers and a wealth of statistical information that helps more and more young or rookie mushers through the race.
“As a competitor, if you have more experience and you understand the race, the more information that’s out there for free actually helps the people pursuing you,” he said with a laugh. “... And the same thing with a lot of the stats available on the Iditarod website archive. You can become an Iditarod musher and in a couple good evenings of studying, you can understand how the race is run.
“Back in the day we were saving newspaper clippings and trying to piece it together, ‘How did they do that? Who ran where, how long and where’d they rest?’”
Brian Smith can be reached at email@example.com.