Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Iditarod 44: My Top 10

We are at 11 days until the Ceremonial Start of Iditarod 44 kicks off in Anchorage, Alaska. Of course, looking out the window of South Central Alaska would suggest we're well past Iditarod time - what with the lack of snow and the rain... but it's still THAT time of year. The time where I try to guess the top teams in Iditarod with lack of races, training on snow, and well... just lack of participation by some of the top names in the sport. 

 But, I have to keep with tradition, and I didn't do TOO terribly last year. So here are my top 10 in ALPHABETICAL order. Yes, I'm trying to seem organized this year. We'll see how long that lasts.

Aliy Zirkle - She had a dip in the standings last year, but I don't expect her to have the same issue this year. Allen Moore came in third with their main team of dogs in the Yukon Quest, and this strategy has worked well for them these last few years with Aliy narrowly losing the top prize in Iditarod (each time to a Seavey, keep in mind). Aliy is a savvy dog driver who is anxious to snag the win, but also knows how to get the most of her dogs. The real "weak link" in my mind is her own limitations. Her dogs feed off her "energy", and by the time Aliy gets tired, they seem to. She was tired early in the race last year it seemed. I don't expect that problem this year.


Brent Sass - He was on the fast track to a possible first place finish in last year's race, but a lapse in judgement or attention cost him. Brent was using a type of iPod that was not allowed by Iditarod (but is by Yukon Quest). Not thinking that things would be different, Brent did not pay close enough attention to the list of accepted equipment. He was disqualified. It was heart breaking, but Brent took it like a champ. He came in second in this year's Yukon Quest, and it's been a difficult season what with his home and kennel threatened by wild fire last summer, and the sudden loss of Kennel Superstar Basin at the beginning of the race season. Don't count Sass out. He's becoming a force on the trail.

Dallas Seavey - Is, once again, the reigning champion. This year he came up with a summer training treadmill that's run out of a large freezer. Keeps the dogs cool even at the height of summer temperatures. It's an interesting study, and could revolutionize how sled dogs are trained - IF it works. It's a big experiment. No one seems to know dogs and their limits like a Seavey, but how they deliver on the Iditarod this season remains to be seen. Of all the former champions in this year's race, Dallas is the most interesting with his latest innovations in dog training. It's like the 80s and early 90s all over again.

Hugh Neff - He just won his second Yukon Quest, and it was a long time coming. Hugh is known for his upbeat personality, and the Cat in the Hat... well... hat coming down the trail. He's fun loving, and sees the races more as just an adventure that may or may not end in a win. He doesn't do as well with the Iditarod as he does with the Quest, and he's been very opinionated as to which organization is better (that'd be The Quest), but he's on the upswing after his well run race. You'd be hard pressed not to put him on your list, but I'd consider him a dark horse. He could take his first title, or he could implode. But either way it'll be a heck of a ride.

Jeff King - He's a four time champion still looking to be the first to tie Rick Swenson's record five wins. Jeff took a brief hiatus from mushing to travel and do other things, and then came back to the sport. He's had a rough come back - teams stalling, big storm that led to another stall out when he was *this close* to his 5th win. All of which hasn't seemed to rattle the veteran musher. Once deemed the "winningest musher" (though I think that may have been self-awarded), Jeff is now one of the old dogs trying to keep up with the new tricks. But he's still more than capable of taking the top prize. It all depends on the dogs.


Jessie Royer - Jessie had the best run of her career last season when she came in the top 5. She's steadily climbed the ranks, and is poised to take it all. It's exciting to see two top teams being led by women. We haven't really had that in decades, and it only helps promote the sport. Where else can Women kick butt on a level playing field? No handicaps, no segregation of sexes. Nope. It's all about who the best dog driver is - and Jessie is proving herself to be one of the best of the field.


Joar Leifseth Ulsom - He came on the scene three years ago with a bang, placing 7th his rookie year. The next year he was top 5. He slid to 6th last year, but Joar has proven he's capable of consistently placing in the top 10 (well, he's never placed OUT of it). I don't know what his secret is, but it would seem insane to count the man out. It will be interesting to see how he places in his fourth run on the Iditarod.

Mitch Seavey - Another consistent top 10 finisher and 2 time Champion, Mitch Seavey should easily keep his record this year. While training conditions in and around his home have not been ideal (I live in the area, too, it's sucked), he has put many hours in on other trails. Again, Seavey teams are some of the best trained - and their mushers understand their behavior. A Seavey has won the last four Iditarods (Dallas 3, Mitch 1). I don't expect Mitch to win this year, I won't say that he can't - because I firmly believe he can - but sometimes his strategy gets in the way of gut instinct. Or so it seems. Hopefully none of Team Seavey reads my blog these days. Ha!


Pete Kaiser - Pete is a successful West Coast Alaska team, he's won the Kusko the last two years, and while he isn't always in the top 10 that doesn't mean he can't be. He is a solid dog driver, and as long as his team can handle the warmer temps at the beginning of the race, he should find himself in the top 10 or close to it. He's a very outside chance to win it, but this is Iditarod where ANYTHING can happen.


Robert Sorlie - Typically I choose one that just doesn't seem to make sense even in my mind. It's SO HARD with so many good teams to choose the top 10 and not leave a few out. However, for some reason I just have to have Robert on this year's list. I don't know if it's gut instinct, or just the fact that he's a two time Iditarod Champion and I have faith he can crack the top 10 again. I don't know. All I know is for some reason I want him in my top 10. Maybe it's so I will remember to get a photo of his face this year and not just his dogs. Maybe it's because my gut knows something my brain doesn't.

A few honorable mentions:

Travis Beals - Travis is a young musher who is determined to climb the ranks and hit the mark. He's strong willed out on the trail, and is smart, too. He trains out of Seward, so he had to travel quite a bit to find good snow and trail for the team this winter. I'd look for him to continue to improve in his rankings. He could crack the top 10 this year, I mean, he was just 1 place shy of doing so last year.

Martin Buser - He's normally in my top 10, but honestly I'm not sure he can keep up with the teams of today like he was able to in decades past. However, I would be remiss to leave him off the list as he will be running what is likely an incredibly emotional race. Buser has been in Seattle for the past month being ever vigilant at his son Nikolai's bedside. Nikolai was in a car accident that very nearly cost him his life. He's going to have a long recovery, though prognosis seems to be very good by all reports. Martin felt he had improved enough, and was out of the woods, so he flew back home today. Rohn Buser has withdrawn from the race to go down and help his mother and brother. 

DeeDee Jonrowe - Another fan favorite who's had a difficult year is DeeDee. She lost EVERYTHING but her dogs and one building in the Willow forest fire this summer. Her mother passed away from her battle with cancer. She's had a pretty traumatic 12 months (less than 12 really), and is still finding her bearings. To add to the stress, due to the recent oil production issues (no thanks to government but that's a rant for a different day) her main sponsor Shell pulled out of Alaska... and pulled their sponsorship of her racing team. Still, she's determined to run the Iditarod and make it to Nome. She's always been a determined woman, so I have no doubt she'll make it. Just probably not top 10 (but what a story if she does!).

So tell me what you think - who would be in your top 10? Give me your list in the comments below, and be sure to follow me on Twitter as we get ready for the 44th Iditarod!

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