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Tight Finishes and “Crazy” Speeds Distinguish Iditarod’s Top 20

Aerial overview of Nicolas Petit's sled dog team

Teams have continued pouring into Nome, filling out the upper ranks of the 2017 Iditarod Sled Dog Race.

Champion Mitch Seavey won his third title Tuesday in a record time of eight days, three hours, and 40 minutes, slashing more than seven hours off the previous record. The Seward musher says he started the race with an aggressive schedule that his fast team eclipsed.

“So that’s pretty cool, the trail was a little faster and smoother than it might have been. I really strongly believe in preparing the dogs to go do what they’re going to do and you shouldn’t really be surprised that it happens.”

At 57 years old, Seavey is the oldest musher to win the race, breaking the record he set in 2013 as a 53-year-winner.

“And I do feel like I’m getting younger, not older, so as long as this is a thing that interests me the most, this is probably what I’ll keep doing. At some point, there might be other things when I grow up, but I’m having so much fun with these dogs.”

Dallas Seavey and Nicolas Petit arrived in a tight race for second and third, respectively. Norwegian Joar Ulsom earned fourth place late Tuesday with his team of 8 dogs. The fifth place finisher had twice that number. Jessie Royer did not drop a single team member over the thousand-mile race and pulled onto Front Street with each of the 16 dogs she drove from the Fairbanks start.

“I think running the [Yukon] Quest beforehand had a lot to do with that; 11 of these finished the Quest with me. So I think that had a lot to do with ‘em. The other five I added to that, 11 are all, like, 5 and 6 time Iditarod finishers. I had one that just finished his 7th Iditarod with me. So, all 16 of these dogs are thousand-mile finishers. Before I finished this race. But even then, the good Lord blessed me with a good bunch of dogs and good luck to get ‘em here.”

Following Royer Wednesday morning were Wade Marrs and Ray Redington, Jr. There was a race out of White Mountain for eighth place. Pete Kaiser left the checkpoint just two minutes ahead of Aliy Zirkle. But by the time they were speeding into Nome, Zirkle had overtaken him, as she explained just as Nome’s air raid siren heralded Kaiser’s ninth place arrival.

“I didn’t catch him until Topkok. When we couldn’t see very well. And then, I rode his skirts almost all the way up Topkok, and then, he stopped. He was like ‘ok, you can take your turn goin’.’ It’s hard to drive a dog team into a 40-mile-an-hour wind.”

Kaiser’s finish is the best of any team from off the road system. When asked why this year’s was an exceptionally fast race, Kaiser says that’s just where dog mushing is at right now.

“It’s just an evolving sport every year. And there’s those guys up front who are pushing the envelope every year, and getting better and better and better at this, and you’re seeing faster dog teams, and they look better than ever. I mean, 9th place in under 9 days? It’s crazy. So, it’s cool to see it evolving so quickly.”

To round out the top ten, veteran musher Paul Gebhardt notched his 8th career top ten finish.

There were a few upsets in the standings, as some mushers faded along the coast and others rallied. Four-time champion Jeff King struggled to stay within top-twenty range and, at one point, worried this year might mark his worst finish ever. But he roared out of Unalakleet, passing numerous competitors and ultimately arriving 11th under the Burled Arch in the bulky garment he’s deemed the “Arctic mumu.”

“I just don’t think I have the energy to race the whole race like this. But I knew I did from Unalakleet, and kinda like Tom Brady, I had a strong 4th quarter. But I couldn’t have done this without doing what I did earlier. I wouldn’t have been able to keep up this pace without taking it pretty easy at the beginning.”

Rounding out the top 20, King was followed by Ramey Smyth, Michelle Phillips, Ryan Redington, Hans Gatt, Ralph Johannessen, and Ken Anderson. 18th place was a bit of a tie, as partners John Baker and Katherine Keith from Kotzebue opted to cross the finish line together. The pair was greeted by singers and drummers from St. Lawrence Island. In 20th position was Linwood Fiedler.

Alaska Public Media’s Zachariah Hughes also contributed to this story.