ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Dallas Seavey won the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Tuesday evening, becoming the youngest musher to win the nearly 1,000-mile race across Alaska.
Seavey turned 25 on March 4, the day the race officially started north of Anchorage. He was the first musher to reach Nome, his nine dogs trotting under the famous burled-arch finish line in the Bering Sea coastal community at 7:29 p.m. Tuesday.
The winner greeted family and friends briefly, then turned to hug his dogs.
"They mean the world to me," said Seavey, of Willow, about 50 miles north of Anchorage.
"I could not be prouder of these guys. It's hard to not come to tears when they finally crossed under this arch in first place."
He finished in nine days, four hours and 29 minutes.
"When you put your mind on something ... good things will happen," he told the crowd.
"Dream big!" he said as he sat with an arm around each of his two lead dogs, Guinness and Diesel, who wore their own yellow floral garlands. "Go for it! Why not?"
The previous youngest winner was the race's only five-time champion, Rick Swenson, who won his first Iditarod at age 26 in 1977. Swenson, now 61, is in this year's race, and was running in the middle of the pack.
Asked about his record-breaking victory, Seavey said it's been a goal since he started racing competitively.
He said his race strategy was to build position carefully.
Heading into the Ruby checkpoint, Seavey thought his team "had a real possibility of winning." Still, while he felt confident, "it's not over till you're sitting on the podium," he said.
Of the race's latter stages, when mushers are notoriously sleep-deprived, Seavey said, "every light that I thought I saw, I thought it was the headlights of a musher about to pass me."
"When you have Ramey Smyth and Aliy Zirkle behind you, it doesn't matter if they're a half day behind you. You'd better be looking over your shoulder," he added.
Zirkle finished second, Smyth was third.
It's a family affair for the Seaveys. Dallas' father, Mitch, 52, won the race in 2004. He was racing in seventh place when Dallas crossed the finish line.
This year, Dallas' 74-year-old grandfather, Dan, is running in his fifth Iditarod to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Iditarod Trail. His trip to Nome is being sponsored by the Iditarod Historic Trail Alliance to highlight the rich history of the trail.
"It's kind of what we do," Dallas Seavey said when asked about that legacy.
Long hours, months and years of training with the dogs brought musher and team to this point.
"I feel like, somewhat like these dogs, I've been raised for this as well," he said.
Two of 1978 winner Dick Mackey's sons have also won, Rick Mackey in 1983 and Lance Mackey from 2007-2010.
Dallas Seavey was the first musher to leave White Mountain after completing a mandatory eight-hour layover to rest his dogs. The second musher out was Aliy Zirkle, and Dallas Seavey maintained his lead for the last 77 miles of the trail from White Mountain to the finish line in Nome.
Dallas Seavey has been described by his father as "fiercely competitive." The former Alaska high school wrestling champion, who also spent a year at the U.S. Olympic Training Center before turning his attention back to dogs, was the first musher to reach the White Mountain checkpoint at 12:14 a.m. Alaska time.
Sixty-six teams began the race on March 4. Eleven mushers have scratched, including the latest, Tom Thurston of Oak Creek, Colo. He left the race Tuesday afternoon in Unalakleet over concern for his dogs. He was down to eight dogs when he scratched.
Among the 55 mushers still racing Tuesday were 12 rookies. Brent Sass was doing the best among the rookies, in 13th place.
The 32-year-old is originally from Excelsior, Minn., but moved to Fairbanks, where he operates Wild and Free Mushing, his kennel and guiding business.
Seavey was leading the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Monday, but Zirkle was close on his heels, leaving the village of Koyuk about 20 minutes later to prevent the son of 2004 champion Mitch Seavey from running away with the race.
“They know at this point they have got to keep really close,” said race spokeswoman Erin McLarnon.
Mushers try to stay within striking distance of the leader at this point in the nearly 1,000 mile race from Anchorage to Nome. That’s because mushers are required to rest their teams for eight hours in White Mountain before heading the 77 miles to the finish line.
The closer the top teams can stay to the leader going into White Mountain the better chance they have of winning.
Sixty-six mushers began the race March 4. The winner will receive $50,400 and a new truck. The total purse of $550,000 will be shared by the first 30 finishers.
This year’s winner likely won’t break defending champion John Baker’s record-breaking time of 8 days, 18 hours and 46 minutes, McLarnon said. It appears the race leaders are moving about two hours slower this year.
Aaron Burmeister was in third place Monday morning, more than two hours behind Seavey. Baker was in fourth.
Zirkle had been leading until Seavey — described by his father as “fiercely competitive” — made a move and erased her more than two-hour lead with what was a faster-moving team. But Zirkle’s team gained on Seavey’s coming to Elim, taking an hour less to cover the 50 miles from the previous checkpoint at Shaktoolik.
Seavey arrived in Elim at 3:19 p.m. Monday, and only stayed for six minutes. However, GPS tracking on the Iditarod website indicated he didn’t move that far outside town and was not moving.
Zirkle arrived in Elim at 3:51 p.m. and was resting.
Several teams scratched and one was withdrawn Sunday. They included four-time champion Jeff King who scratched after his dogs didn’t want to go the last few miles into the checkpoint at Unalakleet and were brought in by snowmachine. McLarnon said it appeared King’s team had a stomach ailment.
Race officials withdrew Jake Berkowitz in Unalakleet after he cut his hand while trying to separate two blocks of frozen fish to snack his dogs.
“It just sounded like the knife slipped,” McLarnon.
Mitch Seavey met the same fate last year when he nearly sliced off a finger opening a bale of bedding straw for his dogs. He was in seventh place Monday.