Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Iditarod FAQ - 2012 Edition - Part 2

To read part 1, click here.

The race has come a long way since Dick Wilmarth won the first Iditarod in 1973 in twenty days (just shy of THREE WEEKS). The race now takes, on average, nine days before the winner is declared. Wilmarth in the inaugural year ran the unknown trail to win his one and only Iditarod, due to controversy (rumors still fly that he cheated somehow) and a lack of desire, Wilmarth never ran another race. Third in that race was Dan Seavey, who will be the only musher from the first race to run in the 40th anniversary race. Dan is the first of a three generation Iditarod racing family, his son Mitch won the Iditarod in 2004, and three out of four of Mitch's sons have run the Iditarod and hold their own records.

Dallas Seavey at the start of Iditard 37.
In 2000, Dan ran in the same race as Mitch and Mitch's oldest, Danny. They made the record for the first 3 generation family to run in the same race. In 2005, Dallas Seavey became the youngest musher to finish the Iditarod, he turned 18 the day before the race (in other words it'll come down to minutes and seconds in order for someone to take that record away from him). In 2011, Dallas won the other long-distance race in Alaska - the Yukon Quest and went on to place fourth in that year's Iditarod. Dallas hopes to beat Rick Swenson's record of youngest musher to win the Iditarod in the next two years.

Rick Swenson became the youngest musher to win the Iditarod at age 26 and would go on to win four more. Swenson is the only five time champion in the forty year history of the race, and continues to run the race and participate in the Iditarod Trail Committee board meetings. He has not given up on winning the all elusive sixth win. Swenson also played a part in Dick Mackey's one second win. In 1978, Mackey and Swenson went head to head into Nome. Both men went all out to get their team to the finishline. Mackey collapsed as his team crossed under the Burled Arch, while Swenson ran his sled under. It was determined by the Race Marshall that Mackey had won because the "nose of the first dog" determined the win. It was not a sled race, it was a dog race.

Dick Mackey also hosts a family with three generations of mushers. Along with Dick two of his sons are also Iditarod Champions. Rick Mackey won in 1983, and younger son Lance Mackey has won an impressive four consecutive wins. Lance is the only musher in history to win four in a row. Lance started his winnings on the Yukon Quest before doing both races in a single year. In 2007, it all came together. Interestingly enough each Mackey won their first Iditarod with the lucky number thirteen for their bib number. Lance Mackey's step-son Cain Carter ran the Iditarod in 2011.

It's not an easy feat, winning the Iditarod (or even running it!), only 19 mushers have ever won. To repeat the feat is even more difficult. It's said there are more people who have successfully climbed mount everest or gone into outer space than there are mushers who were able to finish the race. The Iditarod is the great equilizer. There are no handicaps, there are no "easier courses" for the ladies. Men and Women compete together - one of the few sports that allows this. During the height of the feminist movement in the USA in the 80s, this was especially interesting to those outside of the race. For those running? It was just another day in Alaska.

Susan Butcher with lead dog Granite.
Photo by Jeff Shultz?
The first lady to finish the race was in 1974 when Mary Shields completed her race. It wouldn't be until 1985 until a woman would win. Libby Riddles defied snow storms and nay-sayers when she, surprisingly, was the first to cross the finishline in Nome. However, the next year's winner, Susan Butcher would be the face of mushing women for the sport well into the 90s and 2000s. Butcher is the only woman to win four Iditarods. She changed the sport of mushing by the way she trained and the care of her dogs. She was a fierce rival for Rick Swenson - who was frustrated with the low blows being directed at him for "letting a woman beat him." Through most of Susan Butcher's career the slogan around Alaska was "Alaska: Where men are men, and women win the Iditarod."

Susan Butcher took a break from racing at the height of her career in order to raise her family. In the early 2000s Alaska was rocked hard with the news of Susan's dianosis of Leukemia. Susan fought and beat it the first round, but on another check up it was discovered the disease had come back with a vengence. Susan succumed to the illness on August 5, 2006. The next year, she was declared the Iditarod's honorary musher. The first Saturday in March was declared Susan Butcher day in 2008, and Figure Skating Icon and Olympic Champion Dorothy Hamill - long time friend of Butcher's - was on hand to help dedicate the day.
Only a handful of mushers have won the race more than once, with only six teams winning four times or more. Along with Swenson, Butcher and Mackey, are also Jeff King (the world's "winningest musher"), Martin Buser and Doug Swingley. Swingley is the only American from another state to have won the Iditarod. Swingley's popularity dwindled while he was still at his peak due to the fact that he was very unsportsmanlike towards his competitors and even the state of Alaska. He retired after two disappointing races - one where he froze his corneas, and another where his team became ill and did not finish well. He raises horses in his Montana ranch.

The only other "outsider" to win was part of Team Norway. Robert Sorlie is a two time champion, and is much beloved by the Mushing and Alaskan community. Unlike Swingly, Sorlie was gracious to all, and it was a huge effort on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific to help Team Norway travel to Alaska each year. With the economy the way it is, and the purse for the Iditarod much smaller (and the entry fee higher), Team Norway has been missing the last few years. Sorlie has not run a team in several years, but in 2012 Sigrid Ekran will be back to run the dogs.

Interestingly enough, even though the Iditarod is Alaskan in most every sense of the word, only three Native Alaskans have ever won the Iditarod. Two in the early days of the race, and finally in 2011 John Baker became the third to be crowned champion. Baker is also the first Inupiat to win. Baker came in and broke the fastet time record (held by Martin Buser from his win in 2002), the new record to beat is 8 days, 18 hours, 46 minutes, and 39seconds.

Check back for more Iditarod posts soon! Have questions? submit them in a comment on any blogpost or email me!

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