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For Many Rookies, Just Finishing Iditarod Is Prize Enough

Iditarod team runs past several parked bush airplanes in a snowy landscape.

With 67 mushers leaving the 2018 Iditarod race restart line in Willow, almost 25% of them are running the Iditarod for the first time. KNOM’s Davis Hovey spoke to a couple of this year’s rookies at the ceremonial start in Anchorage before the race began.


Jessie Holmes originally comes from Alabama and eventually made his way to Alaska, where he started mushing in 2004. His most recent sled dog race was the 2018 Kuskokwim 300, although he didn’t finish, and before that, he won the 2017 Kobuk 440 (in April).

Usually, he runs his team between 13 and 15mph on average, but in training for the 1,000 mile Iditarod trail, Holmes says his dogs won’t be moving quite as fast.

“I’ve got the team dialed in to where they’re looking really good between 9 and 10 miles per hour. I still have some of the speed, but they really don’t have that 13, 14 mile an hour speed anymore. They don’t look good doing that.”

Holmes admits he may have to change his rest and run time strategy during the Iditarod, as he has never done a long distance sled dog race before. The rookie out of Nenana says he bought a dog team from Sebastien Vergnaud, who won the Rookie of the Year award during last year’s Iditarod. Holmes says with four leaders from Vergnaud’s team and some winners of his own, he has his eyes set on that top rookie award.

“Well, Rookie of the Year would be nice, but really, my focus is to run this dog team to the level of their capabilities. Right now, all I’ve seen in the past shows me their high level of desire and athleticism. So I’m going to try to push to the front, not the very front, but somewhere in position of the top ten and try to stay there as long as I’m seeing the right things out of my dog team.”

As Holmes sees it, standing between him and being Rookie of the Year is another 2018 Iditarod rookie, 2017 Yukon Quest Champion Matt Hall.

“I know how to run a thousand miles, my team does as well, but this is the Iditarod, so we don’t know it. So, I don’t like goals; my goal would just be the finish line, which is pretty basic. I would hope that it’s more than the finish line, but we’re going to have to see once we get down there.”

Comparatively, Hall has run five Yukon Quests, which, he explains, is due in part to where he grew up.

“I started out with Quest, because it’s kind of in my family; my father has ran it before, and I grew up in Eagle, which is one of the checkpoints, so I’ve just seen the race for a lot of years. So in 2015, I was like, ‘all right, I need to go back to Quest again,’ but then, we had a bad run that year; that was the only time I’ve ever scratched from a race. And so then, myself, I was like, ‘now, I have to go back again and rebuttal on that.’ So then the 2016 season. And then 2017, last year, we were really hurting for money.”

Hall says he and his wife weren’t planning on doing any 1,000 mile races in 2017, but lo and behold, he got the money to run the 2017 Yukon Quest, which he ended up winning. Following that win, Hall says he had the sponsors and funds to afford Iditarod this year, so here he is.

In addition to Hall, at least five other 2018 Iditarod mushers have done the Quest previously (Allen Moore, Hugh Neff, Marcelle Fressineau, Rob Cooke, Cody Strathe, et al.), including Katherine Keith of Kotzebue. Keith says there are advantages to running both 1,000-mile sled dog races.

“I don’t necessarily see them as competing races, but rather complementary to different styles of teams and different styles of mushers. So I think the races do call to different types of mushers, and it’s great that we have two trails like that, that we can travel on, based on our teams and our own desires, because we get to see more of the state and the Yukon that way.”

So far in the 2018 Iditarod, the leaderboard shows Jessie Holmes is the highest-positioned rookie out of all 16 competing.

According to official race standings (as of Tuesday morning), the top three mushers have now arrived in Nikolai. Ryan Redington leads the pack, checking in at 8:06 a.m. with 13 dogs. Nicolas Petit has jumped into second position, checking into Nikolai at 8:25 with 16 dogs. And defending champion Mitch Seavey is in third position. Seavey checked in at 8:27 with 14 dogs.

The GPS tracker shows several more mushers close to arriving into the Nikolai checkpoint.

Tune into KNOM newscasts at 7, 8, and 9 a.m, 12 noon and 5 p.m., or KNOM’s daily updates at 10 a.m. and 2 and 6 p.m., for more coverage of the 2018 Iditarod.

Image at top: Jessie Holmes mushing out of the Rainy Pass checkpoint. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media.