November 22, 2014

Eye on the Trail Speculating – Elite Ten

With all the concern of where the re-start would be, it was a relief to hear the final decision and move onto things like speculating about the elite-ten. What looks good on paper and in theory doesn’t always turn out to be true when the runners hit the snow. As with anyone trying to pick winners in any sport, there’s only so much research you can do before your heart and gut have to take over. Here’s who I see in Nome early on but not necessarily in the order listed.

Aliy Zirkle has finished second for the last two years. She’s run dogs her husband, Allen Moore, has run for the Yukon Quest. Allen won last year and was second by only 26 seconds two years ago. Allen just claimed his second Quest victory. This third run will be a charm for Aliy. 

Jeff King placed third last year with a young and very talented dog team. He’s back and while he’s not such a young guy, his expertise combined with the physical attributes of his young team make him an absolute top ten finisher on my chart. 

Martin Buser pulled a daring move last year out of the start. He ran his dogs to the Rohn checkpoint creating nearly a four-hour lead. He took his 24-hour required rest and figured to take the lead again while other mushers were taking their 24-hour farther down the trail. His plan looked good on paper but didn’t play out as he expected. Martin said of his dogs, “This is an incredible team and they will be better in 2014.” Martin will make the top ten.

Don’t forget about Ray Redington Jr., Nicolas Petit or Norwegian Joar Leifseth Ulsom. Ray Jr. has been climbing higher and higher into the top ten over the past three years with a fifth place finish in 2013 and could put the Redington name on the board of champions anytime now. Nicolas Petit took rookie of the year honors in his first Iditarod when he took over Jim Lanier’s team at the last minute and finished 28th. Two years later he received the most improved musher award finishing 6th. Need I say more about his chances? Ulsom was Rookie of the year in 2013 placing 6th. He’s a skilled dog driver and will put what he learned about the trail last year to good use.

Two-time champion, Norwegian Robert Sorlie, is back on American soil with his extremely talented dog team. Sorlie’s first victory came in 2003, the first time the start was moved out of the Anchorage area to Fairbanks. He earned his second Dodge Truck in 2005 on the southern route. Typically his strategy revolves around long slow runs and short rest. Sorlie has run only the southern route with the exception of 2003 when the start was moved to Fairbanks so he’s familiar with the Ruby to Kaltag segment of the Yukon River. 

A new comer to the race sporting excellent credentials is Norwegian, Ralph Johannessen. He’s the reigning Norwegian long distance champion and has won all the long distance races in Norway. Having a close friendship with Robert Sorlie, Ralph decided to accept the Iditarod challenge. Top-ten is well within this rookie’s reach. 

Mitch Seavey will defend his championship intensely. Just before the race last year, Dallas said, “My Dad has an awesome team.” He was right. Can Mitch claim a third victory, setting still another record for the oldest winner? After Dallas’s championship in 2012 followed by a fourth place last year, he’ll be hungry to claim another victory on his way to eventually challenging the mighty Rick Swenson, the only person to have won Iditarod five times. 

Last but not least, never count DeeDee Jonrowe out. Her spirit is as indomitable as the sled dog. This is Jonrowe’s 32nd Iditarod – she just keeps going and going and going and is no stranger to finishing in the top ten.

If you followed the action of the Yukon Quest in early February, it looked like Brent Sass was ready to challenge for a Quest victory and break into the elite ten of Iditarod. That was true until he had an unfortunate accident that caused him to withdraw from the Quest. Sass was a few miles short of Braeburn when he nodded off then fell off his sled and hit his head on some very hard and unforgiving lake ice. While his dog team would be ready for Iditarod, Sass needs time to completely recover from his injuries and has wisely withdrawn from Iditarod.