Friday, February 24, 2012

Bring on the Men!

It's true, the Iditarod is dominated by men, aside from a very powerful run by Susan Butcher where she won four titles in the course of five years, the Iditarod has been a "man's game." They're a cast of characters, all of whom have great fanbases spanning the entire globe. Some are grandfather status, others are barely out of college age. There's no standard size or build when it comes to these mushers, it comes down to strategy's and levels of insanity, and 2012 hosts a ton of ready to win competitors.

A short-lived retirement for Jeff King means the "most winningest musher in history" is once again in the hunt for a fifth win. King took last year off, and is running a somewhat smaller kennel this year, but has shown that he is every bit as competitive as ever. He won the Sheep Mountain race earlier this season, and gave the Tustumena 200 champion - Cym Smith - a run for his money (literally). It seems whatever drive was missing at the end of Jeff's career in 2010 is back. If he's not first, he'll be top ten.

2011 was a rough go for Lance Mackey. His team seemed to tire out - due partially to illness - and they just couldn't get into their magic groove that propelled them to four consecutive wins (he placed a dismal - for him - 16th). Mackey will, no doubt, be back with a vengence - especially since King is back. The two have a fierce rivalry, and it makes long time fans excited to see a possible head to head battle again this year. Mackey is a cancer survivor, which propels him to be the very best he can be. If he could beat a disease that was supposed to cancer, -40* temperatures ain't nothin! Of the fourtimers racing in the 40th race, Mackey seems to have the best shot at reclaiming his title and tying Rick Swenson for most wins.

Current Iditarod Champion John Baker had that magic run last year, breaking down barriers and setting records. His quiet confidence, and get the job done attitude makes him one of the most admirable mushers ever to win. Baker has been a fan favorite for decades, and his win was as exciting as any win in history. Baker could very well repeat his win, but it will all have to come together. He's no longer just one of the teams "in the hunt." So many mushers never repeat, but if Baker were to do so he'd break even more barriers and records.

Hugh Neff just won himself a Yukon Quest and is looking to match Lance Mackey in becoming Iditarod Champion in the same year. Neff's energy exceeds his team, and his care for his dogs is exceptional. "The Cat in the Hat" brings some much needed new life into the race, with his enthusiasm. He prefers the Quest, but the Iditarod continues to call. Neff is a mushing rock star.

The youth vote definitely goes to Dallas Seavey. The 2011 Yukon Quest Champion has steadily climbed the rankings in the Iditarod finishing 4th after a seemingly slow start. The youngest musher to ever finish, Seavey's new goal is now to be the youngest musher to win - a record currently held by Rick Swenson, who won his first Iditarod at the age of 26. Seavey has two years left to claim the record, and looks to be ready to do so. Seavey is a third generation Iditarod musher, his grandfather - Dan Seavey - came in third in the very first Iditarod, and his father - Mitch Seavey - won the Iditarod in 2004. Dallas is competitive and very goal minded, a win is completely possible.

Mitch Seavey was having a solid race last year until a freak accident - with a knife severing his finger (nearly cutting it off!) - sidelined his chance for a win. Seavey is back, hoping to finsih what he started last year. Mitch works his strategy religiously, and rarely veers off his plan. He has his race planned down to the minutes, it worked in 2004, it could very well work again. The real question is how his finger will hold up while fighting the cold and other elements during the 10 days on the trail. He's had decent standings all season long, but nothing will put his recovery to the test like the Iditarod.

Ramey Smyth nearly had his dream become reality last year when he came second in the Iditarod. It's said that no one can get a team to kick into a whole other gear at the end of a race like the Smyth boys. Smyth holds records for fastest time from White Mountain to Nome. He's really set the pace for a first win for his team, and this could just be the year. The other guys know to watch out for him.

Martin Buser is another four time Iditarod Champion looking to claim another title. He was well on his way to doing just that last year, but many believe that he set the pace far too early and his team reached burn out before the final stretch. Buser is one of the many characters on the trail, he often sings to his trail as they run down the trail and believes his dogs happiness is more important than where he finishes. He's an adopted Alaskan we're all very proud of. Chances are Buser will be in the thick of things, but has a very outside chance of actually nailing his fifth win down.

Paul Gebhardt has been a mainstay on the Iditarod for years. He hails from Kasilof, Alaska, and he's a fan favorite. Gebhardt has been "so close" many times, and could pull one out of his hat finally. Last season he had to scratch due to illness within the team. They just didn't want to run. Gebhardt is in tune with his team, and knows what it takes.

Cim Smyth beat Jeff King in the Tustumena 200 by just minutes with his team kicking into that magic Smyth Team gear this past January. His team looks strong, and it could be "that other Smyth" that comes out on top. He's just a nice guy that you want to see have that magic moment, ya know?

A very outside chance, but he needs to be on this list, is Rick Swenson. He holds the most wins at #5, and chances are he's feeling the heat with Mackey, Buser, and King all coming up and trying to tie for number of wins. Swenson is one of the oldest competitors out on this year's trail. He's a bit larger than most of the mushers, and he comes from the old school, but he could have one more win in him. Anything is possible!

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