September 25, 2017

Eye on the Trail: Top Ten

Starting line for Iditarod 43 located at Pikes Lodge in Fairbanks

 

Time to make public my top ten for Iditarod XLIII. I’ve been thinking about this since last June when musher sign-up began. Then one has to take into account mushers who’ve chosen to do the distance double and run the Yukon Quest too. From there it’s a lot of speculation, weighing facts & figures and finally one has to take into account what your gut says. Choosing a top ten gives me focus for the race. Considering that my focus for stories in the Eye on the Trail blog is mostly back of the pack, I really won’t be spending much time hanging out with the folks who’ll be first into Nome. In no specific order, I think these are the folks who’ll lead the 2015 Iditarod field to the Burled Arch.

Aaron Burmeister from Nome is back on his feet with strong knees and a brace, just in case. Aaron told me at the Ceremonial Start that he had major reconstruction surgery last spring and after serious therapy he’s better than new. Aaron was named the Most Inspirational Musher of the 2014 race after making it to Nome on a seriously injured knee.    

Peter Kaiser of Bethel has run the race five times since 2010 finishing in the top ten twice. He’s got a strong bunch of dogs and once they hit the Yukon River, it’ll feel like they’re running home. I’m confident he’ll be ready to race.

Jeff King has to feel that he was robbed by mother nature last year. He had what looked to be an insurmountable lead leaving White Mountain but then the wicked winds and ice snatched what would have been his fifth win with a record blasting time and by the oldest musher. He’s hungry and he’s got the dog team to make this his fifth win.

Martin Buser is a strong contender for a high finish.  He’s got the dogs an he’s physically mended with two good ankles and ten working fingers.  He’s a four time champion with 19 top ten finishes in his career including 6th in the 2014.  He’s a very hungry and will be as strong as his dogs on this new route. 

Queen of Hearts, Aliy Zirkle, will be focused on what has eluded her while she’s been finishing second for the past three years, the championship. We all know that Allen Moore runs the SP Kennel A team for the quest and Aliy takes the nucleus of that team along with a few surprise dogs to Nome in March. Had Allen won the Quest this year, I’d feel more confident in an Aliy championship. She considers herself to be the 17th member of the team and trains hard to be able to match the canine athletes.

Reigning Yukon Quest Champion Brent Sass won’t leave anything on the Iditarod Trail, he’ll go all out to do a Lance and capture both crowns in the same year. After bashing his head on the ice last year, Sass understands that in order to maximize the performance of his dogs, he also has to take good care of himself. You can’t see the mental strategy he employs to make that work but you can see the physical part. Sass is religious about wearing a specially designed helmet WHENEVER he’s on the sled. His dogs are speedsters. It’ll take a while to figure out if they peeked in the Quest or if they built a bigger better foundation of fitness.

Norwegian, Joar Leifseth Ulsom was Rookie of the Year in 2013 at 7th place. He moved up three places to 4th last year. He’s studied the race from the front and has what it takes to not only stay in the top ten but capture the crown. Will this new route work in his favor? No matter how much experience you’ve had in Iditarod, the move to Fairbanks evens the playing field for all.

The father and son Seaveys, Mitch and Dallas, are ready to rock and roll out of Fairbanks. They’ve made it a habit of pushing each other to the finish line in Nome. Dallas isn’t the only one in the family with a driving competitive spirit. I go so far as to say he’s a chip off the old block. Will it be Mitch’s turn to win the crown to keep the Seavey Family string alive. Mitch holds the current “oldest guy” to win designation, fifty –three years old. With a win this year, he’d bring that to fifty-five. Dallas is driven and with a win this year would move one closer to Rick Swenson’s record of five Championships. Anything can happen with those guys.

Ray Redington, Jr. has been a consistent top ten finisher since 2011. Ray, a man of few words, won’t say much except “Okay” when asked how his dog team looks this year. It’s time the Redington name tops the list of race finishers. Ray is very generous with his time and advice when it comes to mentoring young mushers. He’s got to be very proud of the accomplishments of the Harper boys, Ben and Kevin. When they moved to the Wasilla area, Ray Jr. took them under his wing and has been instrumental in their mushing success. Ben is doing the big race this year as a rookie and Kevin just claimed the Junior Iditarod Championship.

Well, that makes ten but there are a couple of additional names I’d like to include with my list, people who could easily break into the top ten and who’ve been there before.  Jessie Royer guided her team to Nome in 7th place in 2014 and is certainly capable of repeating. The energizer bunny, DeeDee Jonrowe could finish up there too.  When she scratched last year, Jonrowe made it very clear hat she was not done with Iditarod.  I suspect she’s worked extra hard in training this year to reiterate that statement.  At the age of 61, this will be her 33rd Iditarod start.  Age is a matter of the mind, if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.  Just ask Jim Lanier.

That leaves me with a few fellows that are on the cusp.   After earning Rookie of the Year honors in 2014, Nathan Schroeder from Minnesota said he’d be back and his focus would be on climbing to the top. Schroeder is a smart dog man who can train and strategize with the best of them. Again, the new route may play in his favor for improving from 17th place in 2014. Finally, I have to list Ken Anderson as having top ten potential.  The race starts in his back yard.  That’s got to be good for something more than just sleeping in your own ben on the night before the restart.  This will be his 15th trip to Nome.  All finishes have been in the top twenty except for his rookie race.