Dallas Seavey says ‘this is where I want to be’ as he chases Brent Sass

A man looks upset
Dallas Seavey during his 24-hour stop in Cripple, earlier in the race. Then, he said he’d been taking an extra hour of rest at each stop throughout the race due to an illness going through his team. By Unalakleet, he said they’d gotten better.(Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

UNALAKLEET — Five-time Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey raced into the checkpoint here in second place early Sunday, roughly two-thirds of the way into the 1,000-mile race.

Seavey pulled in about two hours after Brent Sass left.

Seavey opted to stay for about three hours. After feeding his dogs and putting down straw for them to curl up in, he spoke with Alaska Public Media journalist Lex Treinen and Anchorage Daily News journalist Marc Lester.

Here’s what Seavey had to say about trail mishaps, his dogs and whether he thinks he can catch up to Sass.

Listen here:

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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Dallas Seavey: I like how this sets me up for the rest of the coast.

Anchorage Daily News: Tell me why. What does this do for you?

DS: That’s trade secrets. [laughter] No, it’s, we see a lot of big pushes be done particularly at the end of the race. But they’re not always well thought out. You see, people do big pushes and it puts them ahead, but ahead at the wrong time. There’s only one place that you really need to be in front. I think we saw that last year, from people that were trying to catch up with me. They got close, but it was not at the correct time. So you have to have a good leave time. And this sets me up for a very good leave. And I think the best schedule for the coast for my team.

Alaska Public Media: You mean like with daylight and heat of the day, that kind of thing?

DS: Not so much that. But where you want to have your big pushes or your longer runs, how you break up the run. I mean, I could do a 100 mile-run. But we have to understand that if we do that, you either need to take a really long break afterward or be at the finish line. So it’s more about where you want to have your dogs set up for their longer rests, their breaks — what’s your team strength? If you have a team that doesn’t have great upper-end speed, but they’ve got lots of energy, you’re gonna want to break the runs up evenly. With shorter breaks, you know, spread it out, don’t do one big move, lots of little moves, lots of chances to adjust a lot. So chances to correct and accommodate the trail. So that’s tactical mushing and I think that’s what I do well on the coast. So this is where I want to be. 

AKPM: Are you communicating with anyone to suss out strategy? How well do you know where Brent is? And how closely are you paying attention to that?

DS: This is how well I know: I pulled into Old Woman cabin (a trailside cabin outside of Unalakleet) just to see if there was straw there. And there was straw there, which told me that he camped there. But it’s just a hair off the trail. But I swung in there. So that’s sort of my intel. I do have my cell phone, but it’s AT&T, which doesn’t work anywhere. So I had service for three minutes when I went through Galena but I didn’t stop in Galena. So no, I haven’t gotten much for intel. But there was a snowmachine or at Old Woman that said Brent left there at 7:30 p.m.

RELATED: Trailing in Iditarod as teams hit coast, Dallas Seavey plans strategy to catch Brent Sass

ADN: Any temptation to try to close the gap sooner than you maybe should?

DS: I think there is for some. But I think that’s what I was speaking to earlier. We feel this urge to catch up. So we look at the schedule, we look at the next 24 hours and say, ‘Oh, I can do this crazy thing to catch up.’ Well, great. You caught up. But what does that do you? You’re at the wrong time, you still got 200 miles to go. And now you have a slow dog team. 

So White Mountain is not the finish. (The checkpoint 77 miles to the finish line.) The finish is the finish. That’s another common mistake is people feel like they have to catch up. I would rather be in White Mountain and still be 20 or 30 minutes behind but have a stronger team. So we’re balancing a number of factors. One is closing the gap. But the other one is to make sure that if and when we do catch up, we have the stronger team. Because catching up only means that you’re now in a foot race. So are you ready for that foot race? That’s a bigger question.

AKPM: In Cripple you told me the pressure this year is to not to win to have fun. How’s that holding up? Do you feel more competitive now?

DS: I’ve been competitive all along. I mean, obviously, we’ve done well in this thing in the past, I think. But this year, we’ve had more than a few curveballs. And I’m always gonna have fun. That’s first and foremost. But part of me having fun is I like being competitive. And I think I also told you in Cripple that I want to compete, I like to compete and if I can compete for first, then great. But I want to have a team that I can race with regardless of what position. If I’m racing for fifth, I want to be catching up to the guy in front of me not getting run over by everybody behind me. So I’m having a blast. 

I feel like Murphy’s law (“anything that can go wrong will go wrong”) is like a lost little puppy just following me around. That’s a little bit annoying. But other than that, we’re having fun and things are actually going remarkably well.

ADN: Tell me about the leaders you came in with.

DS: Dumb and Dumber. [laughter] The white one is Pecos. He’s actually one of the big surprises. Well not surprises, but most improved — let’s call him that. He finished with me last year, but was a leader that did well early in the race – would do great in the team – but wasn’t a leader at the end of the race. And on this front here, he really caught a new gear. And not only was the lead driving hard, doing well, and by doing that, giving my two main leaders a break. But he was also trotting. He wasn’t over-exerting himself to do it. He was able to settle into his normal pace and lead. So I was really pleased to see that — several levels of maturity that he grew on the last couple runs. 

He’s still terrible at finding the trail though [laughter]. Coming here, he was just all over the place. He’s just looking at the birds in the sky and just runs right off the end of the trail. I’m like, ‘Dude, pay attention!’ The other one is Titan and he’s just a three year old. In fact, the swing dog is his father. The other swing dog is his uncle. And those are my main two leaders, Prophet and North, and both of them were with me last year. And this is Titan’s first time. Prophet has a couple children in this team. 

ADN: The four Iditarods that you’ve won that have come through Unalakleet, how many times have you been in lead in Unalakleet?

DS: I haven’t the faintest idea that sounds like a good job for a reporter to look into. [laughter]

ADN: I just wondered if this was a new situation?

DS: No, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten the Gold Coast Award. I don’t think I’ve ever been first to Unalakleet. Seems like I should have at some point. But like ‘15, I won by three hours. And I know I wasn’t first here. But I have a couple different ways that I run the coast and with this team, this pace and where everything broke out, you know, with the sickness and everything — where we started from, let’s say in Cripple — just makes sense for us. So I’m running this plan. This playbook.

AKPM: You mentioned you got over the sickness. Were there any other mishaps? You mentioned Murphy’s law…

DS: There’s been a number. One of my good dogs that finished with me last year, right before going into McGrath — I mean, literally right before he went into McGrath, 100 yards from the ramp that goes up there — he’s trying to bite snow and he just slipped and fell flat on his face and injured his shoulder. It’s one thing if a dog runs and maybe starts to get fatigued muscles you feel like as a musher, maybe you could have done stuff differently. But when you do everything right, and the dumb dog just slips. I had another one step in a moose hole, that’s taken him out. So it’s really frustrating when there’s things like that. I mean, what are the chances you’re gonna have two dogs in one race that just step funny, right? So things like that. And there’s been a number of just little issues.

AKPM: They’re over their diarrhea?

DS: Yes, it was about 20 miles out of Cripple, they started eating like wolves. Back at Cripple, where we rested for 24 hours, the dogs weren’t eating like that. I was really disappointed with, you know, a third of my team at that point, you know, just basically not getting the benefit from that rest that we ought to have. And I guess on that note, I wouldn’t mind being hours behind here if I was behind for the right reason, like we’ve been stockpiling rest and maybe even carrying the right dogs in the sled. But the reason we were behind is because we were sick. And we were having to accommodate those dogs that weren’t feeling well — carrying them in the sled, many of which got dropped ultimately, anyway. So when you’re behind for the wrong reason, I don’t think we have the advantage that normally comes with being behind which is the more powerful team due to that rest. I think we do have a more powerful team.

AKPM: Is that frustration in your voice?

DS: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. But you can be frustrated and happy at the same time. Believe me, I do it all the time.

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Lex Treinen covers culture, homelessness, politics and corrections for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at ltreinen@alaskapublic.org.