DESHKA LANDING — An unusual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race named a familiar champion early Monday.
Dallas Seavey kicked to help his sled glide to the finish at 5:08 a.m. behind a perky string of sled dogs, with lead dogs North and West in front.
“Stoked to be here,” said a smiling Seavey, before giving his parents a big hug, as a small crowd cheered in temperatures in the teens at Deshka Landing, a boat launch in Willow.
This is Seavey’s fifth Iditarod championship, tying the record for most race wins. Before Seavey, only Rick Swenson had won five Iditarods, and that was back in 1991.
Asked at the finish line to summarize how a fifth win felt, 34-year-old Seavey at first laughed and said, “Comes after four, I guess.”
Then, he admitted, it’s a big deal.
Seavey comes from deep sled-dog racing roots, and is known as a disciplined, focused and competitive musher.
Since becoming the youngest Iditarod champion in 2012 at the age of 25, people had predicted he might go on to win five — at least.
“I’ve always said, ‘I’m going to get the next one. And someday five might be the next one,’ and that’s today,” Seavey said. “We got it, and that’s huge, man. I’ve looked up to Iditarod champions my whole life, and I’ve dreamed about this my whole life. Now, to see it happen, that’s pretty cool.”
‘You bust your ass, you do it right’
Seavey said it felt especially good to win the Iditarod after stepping away from the race in 2017, disgusted with how officials handled a positive drug test in his dog team.
For more than a year, Seavey denied giving his dogs tramadol, a painkiller the race prohibits.
Then in the winter of 2018, the Iditarod race organization cleared him of any wrongdoing and apologized. It also got new leadership.
Seavey said winning another Iditarod wasn’t so much about redemption or getting back at the race, but more like verification, to prove to anyone who had doubted him that he is doing right by his dog team.
“I take a lot of pride in doing things ethically, doing them correctly. You bust your ass, you do it right, you do good things, and good things will happen,” he said. “And that’s where we’re at.”
After crossing the finish line Monday, Seavey walked down his line of dogs, petting each one.
“Oh Westy, you ready for a nap bud?” he cooed. “You’ve earned it… Good boy.”
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, only a small group of people gathered at the finish chute, congratulating Seavey and cheering him on.
There were also camera crews and, like other starts and finishes, a few protesters. Those protesters appeared to get escorted out as Seavey and a race official checked his sled for the mandatory gear all mushers must carry, such as snowshoes and an axe.
Then, Seavey got swabbed for COVID-19.
(He tested negative, a race official said later.)
Seavey had to rebuild his kennel to enter this year’s Iditarod, in part, because of a divorce that split up dogs.
Just over half of his 2021 team came from his dad, Mitch, who sat out of the competition.
“But they’ve all been training with me since July,” Seavey said.
Mitch is a three-time Iditarod champion, and Seavey’s grandfather, Dan, competed in the first Iditarod, nearly 50 years ago.
Both were at the finish line on Monday.
“It’s pretty cool,” Mitch said, in the minutes before his son claimed victory.
“This is pretty good for a comeback, I think that’s the main thing. He’s had some tough times, and a couple of rough years and kept his chin up the whole time and good humor and it’s kind of like a good dog, go through the rough patch and come out the other side and keep pulling.”
Asked what has helped Seavey get to so many victories, his grandpa, Dan Seavey, said, “I can sum it up very easily: total commitment.”
“And along with that comes, of course, the experience of growing up in the dog lot with dog mushers and sled dogs. I mean, it’s like, what would cause somebody to become a dairy farmer? Well, you probably grew up with dairy cows, you know?”
Dallas Seavey notched his fifth Iditarod victory in a race that was unlike any other.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and to avoid potentially spreading the illness in villages, race officials shortened the trail this year, and made it an out-and back-route.
For the first time, the race ended in Willow instead of Nome, and it was 830 miles, instead of 1,000.
Seavey didn’t mind.
“It is different,” he said. “But I love a new and different puzzle.”
Burmeister’s top finish in 20 races
Seavey dominated much of the 2021 Iditarod, though at times, the competition became neck-and-neck, with Nome’s Aaron Burmeister just an hour behind on Sunday.
But Burmeister ultimately couldn’t close the gap in the race’s final stretch.
He and his 10-dog team crossed the finish line in second Monday, more than three hours after Seavey, at 8:23 a.m.
Burmeister was met with hugs and kisses from his wife and two kids.
In Burmeister’s 20 Iditarods, second place is his best finish. Still, he seemed a little disappointed.
“It wasn’t quite good enough,” he said, standing at the back of his sled in the finish chute. “My first race was 1994 when I was 18. So it has been a lot of years of chasing this race.”
This year, he said, “I was hoping to have first place, it could be my last one, I could retire and be done with it.”
Now, he plans to give the Iditarod just one more try, next year.
“I want my final Iditarod to finish in my hometown in Nome,” he said. “I’ll probably participate, next year is the 50th, and be done racing and spend more time with the family.”
Seavey met Burmeister at the finish line, complementing his dog team and asking about potential breeding opportunities.
After Burmeister mushed his dogs away, toward his dog truck, Seavey said in an interview that he also doesn’t plan to race every year. He has a young daughter too.
“I love the lifestyle. And when it gets to a point that the racing starts to own you and it starts to be stressful, the lifestyle loses some of its appeal,” he said.
“You know, when I’m thinking, ‘Man, I’m out here for the 15th day in a row, hours on hours on hours on end, training this dog team and I would love to just go read a book to my daughter.’”
However, Seavey underscored, that doesn’t mean he’s ready to make any sort of announcement about what’s next.
“I’m just saying I’m open,” he said. “I may be back next year. I may not.”
For his win this year, Seavey will get a check for about $40,000, plus a new snowmachine.
After Burmeister, Eureka’s Brent Sass placed third in the Iditarod at 9:41 a.m., his highest-place finish in six attempts.
Then came Wade Marrs in fourth, Mille Porsild in fifth, Nicolas Petit in sixth, Ryan Redington in seventh, Joar Leifseth Ulsom in eighth, Richie Diehl in ninth and Ramey Smyth in tenth.
Twenty-six other teams remained on the trail late Monday afternoon.