November 27, 2014

Dallas Seavey Ready to Defend Title

Dallas Seavey, 2012 Champ, Prepared to Defend

“Hello,” the other end goes, and seriously, I hold my breath hoping its Dallas Seavey, the 2012 Champ. If I have a chance to stall him again before the race, he has to know I am not going to obliterate a half hour of valuable time— so I limit the call to five minutes.

Rule number one, especially with a defending champ, is to never ask for the details of this year’s strategy.   Consider it bad manners, like asking someone for their annual income.  In two weeks we can watch strategy unfold, a mesmerizing battle of wits with the top contenders.  I try another approach.

“Rumors, whispers in the wind, suggest that you have a crew of six helping at the kennel.  How do you keep this many people productive?”

Dallas, as fans learned during Iditarod 2012, was the youngest, at age 25, to win an Iditarod.   Also, as background, he is the only Alaskan to win a USA national wrestling championship (125 pound Greco Roman), another indication of his discipline and elite level of physical conditioning.  He also impressed me and others on the trail last year with his thoughtful approach to race strategy.  Commenting on the lead mushers of the race on the Yukon River (about two thirds of the way on the trail), he gave me a great rhetorical answer; “Maybe the leaders aren’t the ones that are the competition?”  That caught my attention and I thought it was a great insight.  I noted in the same conversation that he was five or six hours behind and asked if it was possible to get back to the front.  Personally, I thought it was a huge lead to overcome.   He replied with casual confidence, “Absolutely,” and took control of the race a couple of days later on the Bering Sea Coast.  Finally, I think it’s fair to say that he did not win with a team that was superior in genetic talent, rather he won it with a well-executed  strategy and will.

Dallas admitted that he had a big crew of help at his kennel this year.  Most are in his age bracket but one is 16 and another 50.  The goal is to make the kennel a working environment that is totally positive.  “We have a lot of work, but with six handlers it’s not killer work and we can all have fun.”  One of the handlers is an experienced musher and Dallas leans on him to help train the main team.  

Others help train his one year and two year old upstarts, part of Dallas’ plan for consistency into the future.  It’s great experience for his handlers but also benefits recruits for his team.  He told me that his young dogs were all raised at his kennel, with an eye to excellent genetics and animal husbandry.  That strategy is ready to be tested.

“Guiness, my super leader and Golden Harness Winner (an  award, voted by mushers, for outstanding leader of the race) is retired and my other leader Elim, the one I got from Aaron Burmeister, is not going to be on the team this year.”  One more veteran from last year’s team also is retired, leaving three big holes in the champion’s team.

“Fortunately, I have 26 new dogs to choose from that are two to three years old.  Their physical talent and genetics should be better than my winning team.”   Dallas still has a core of veterans but his young dogs have changed the character of the team.   The biggest problem with young dogs is not athletic performance and enthusiasm.  Rather, the challenge is to keep them calm—no exertion above the red line– so they can perform consistently over a nine day race.  “In the first half of the race, guaranteed, I’ll keep the team at the appropriate rpm’s.”

At the brain trust in the front of the team, look for these emerging leader personalities:  Diesel and Beetle (led down the 2012 finish chute) and a snappy young female named Sable.  Dallas told me he visualizes preparation as the most important part of strategy—even to the handling of his pups—and the most significant area for improvement.   “Cause and effect, that’s what I am looking at, especially in caring for my pups.”

What about this year’s race?  Dallas has been spending “a lot of time studying the race.”  Generally, the race from the start to Nikolai receives particular musher scrutiny, and I’ll tell you why.  Within the first 48 hours of the Iditarod, mushers in the front pack coach their team over the most technically difficult part of the trail from the start in Willow, up and over the Alaska Range summit near Rainy Pass checkpoint and off the north shoulder of the mountains to Nikolai checkpoint.   Mushers typically toy with an effort of 28 hours of traveling and 20 hours of rest—with individual variations.   Historically speaking, the winner of the race cannot be more than two or three hours off the pace at Nikolai.  The trick is to keep the lead pack in sight, but at the same time carefully manage the exuberance and condition of the team.

When I asked him about the first third of the race, where most mushers try to balance their efforts over the very challenging trail over the Alaska range, Dallas offered, “The race is going to have seconds, minutes, shaved through-out the race.  It won’t come in a dramatic change in strategy.”

That is a telling observation, because, in my opinion, no present musher equals Dallas Seavey in a raw athletic ability to move like a dervish in checkpoints.  Upon arriving, Seavey is in a no huddle offense like an NFL quarterback, the master of an exhausting two minute drill to complete his tasks.  He is a whirlwind, a study in continuity, moving efficiently to feed his dogs, lay down straw beds, check and treat pads for the occasional nick, and then quickly leave them to sleep while he hustles to get some rest.   Whatever his other weaknesses may be, Dallas is the champ of the checkpoint, and here he may have laid out the challenge.   It’s as if he said, “ all things being equal, I will win because I can give my dogs five minutes  more rest at a stop, and over the course of nine days of racing, credit me for an hour and a half advantage.”  He also likes to run hills, an annoying habit for mushers who like to ride the runners.

Curious to know if he tests his ideas, Dallas admitted that there are certain long stretches on his training runs when he can ring his Dad, Mitch Seavey (the 2004 Iditarod champ).  “I like him to critique my ideas.  Sometimes we agree, but often we are in contrast.  But that’s good, because it gives me more to think about.”

In other call, Mitch told me that he and his son are best friends, often sharing viewpoints, but on the race they view each other as serious competitors.    Mitch and Dallas run independent kennel operations, a family trait that can be traced to Dan Seavey, the grandfather of three generations of Seavey mushers.

Dan Seavey, the patriarch and definitive individualist, told me, “I trained with my grandson Conway (younger brother of Dallas) for the 2012 Iditarod.  His dad Mitch gave him a group of dogs, but that was it. He was responsible for the care and training of the team.  He doesn’t have a driver’s license so his mother drove him to the races.”  Conway won the Jr. Iditarod and Dan, at age 74, finished his fifth Iditarod.   “Growing up with sled dogs and racing is an advantage, but what you make of an opportunity is up to you.” 

Veteran fans know that mushers have just delivered packed food and gear to the Iditarod Trail Committee.  Over the next several weeks, the Iditarod will ship the checkpoint bags to designated checkpoints along the trail.    As one can imagine, those gear bags are a major part of strategy.  Dallas told me, “I made some small changes over last year, but the biggest difference was I had lots of help this year.”

Dallas is characteristically steady, not flashy.   On the other hand, the defending champ isn’t advertising his game plan for 2013.  Check out the Insider for great videos and the invaluable GPS tracker and watch the Dallas Seavey strategy unfold in this year’s 2013 Iditarod.