Monday, February 20, 2017

Iditarod 45: My Top Ten

It's that time again, time for me to pretend I know what I'm talking about and choose the top 10 teams that I think have a shot of winning. I'm going to try and keep it alphabetical again. These choices are strictly my own, I had no outside influence or help. I rarely choose the correct top ten, but have come pretty close.

Aliy Zirkle - She's been knocking at the door for the last few years, and we won't count last year against her. Aliy went through an ordeal that no one should have to go through, and if you aren't cheering for her this year I don't know what your problem is. Aliy's running her kennel's A team once again, and they just came in third on the Yukon Quest (driven by her husband Allen Moore). Zirkle's team looks strong, but she will once again be the weaker link of the team. One has to wonder about her mental toughness returning to the race that nearly cost her everything last year. Perhaps the reroute will be a blessing in disguise for the SPKennel leader.

Dallas Seavey - He broke Rick Swenson's record of being the youngest musher to win the Iditarod. He holds the record for fastest finish. If Dallas wins this year he TIES both Lance Mackey's 4 consecutive wins, AND Rick Swenson's five wins. However, Swenson hit that record in the early 90s, and there have been four 4-time champions since then that can't seem to break that fifth win. Dallas has youth and health on his side, and many armchair mushers pretty much have him winning without even starting the race. I'd actually be very surprised to see him win this year. There's something about that fifth win that is just so illusive. However, if anyone was to crack it, it'd be Dallas. He doesn't seem to believe in pressure.

Jeff King - Speaking of four timers trying to crack into that fifth win... King last won in 2006, but it wasn't from lack of trying. Jeff has come close many times to winning his fifth title. Had it not been for a freak windstorm that blew his team off course and became so violent King had to flag down help so that he could get his team to the safety of the checkpoint of Safety, he'd have won his fifth title in 2014 (Dallas won that one). King was poised to take control of the race last year before his team was viciously attacked by a drunk on a snowmachine. Jeff continued and finished the race, but momentum was lost and a win was out of reach (he did manage to stay in the top 10, however). Hopefully he can tear himself away from posting about how much he can't stand Trump to have another great run on Iditarod.

Jessie Royer - If Royer's not in your top ten, then you haven't been paying attention. The Montana-ite is eating up a lot of trail and gaining on the top contenders consistently year after year. Don't let the hiccup of 15th place last year fool you; Jessie is going to be in the mix. The last time the teams ran this trail (just two years ago) she came in 4th. She had some of the strongest, fastest runs in the Yukon Quest (though she was not the top woman finisher). She's learned tricks from a 4-time Iditarod Champion. Should she pull off a win, it'd be an upset, but she'd also become the first non-Alaskan woman to win. She's got the goods, she could pull it off.

Joar Leifseth Ulsom - Someone tell this dude that life is not a photoshoot! Doesn't matter what angle or who's shooting, chances are you get a nearly GQ photo of this guy on the back of his sled. But he's not just some wannabe pretty boy, he's got the goods. He has quickly made himself known on the Alaska mushing scene. He's serious about his dogs, and he seems to have it all together. His team looked strong in the races he's run this season, and he's consistently improving his standings. He was 6th last year, I expect he'll make a run to get a higher placement this year.

Mitch Seavey - "Da Man" Seavey. His motto is "just mush". When talking with Mitch all you'll ever get is "I'm just going to mush my dogs and see where we end up." That's like hearing a figure skater say "I'm just want to skate my best." It's a PR phrase. It's quoteable. And should the chips fall and you aren't first, well, at least you don't have to eat your words. That being said - do not let him fool you. Mitch is every bit as competitive as his son. He doesn't sit back and "let" anyone beat him. He does run his dogs to the best of THEIR ability, but they only get to the level they are because he is competitive in training and dog care. He's come in second to Dallas twice. He's won this thing twice. 2015 he was on a trail he was unfamiliar with. He knows it now. I don't expect him to not make that push to the front at the right time.

Nicolas Petit - Nicolas has run an aggressive race season this year. He's been aggressive in his race strategy. He nearly won the Tustumena 200, and had control of the Copper River Basin for most of the race before his dogs just had enough of breaking trail. I don't expect him to treat the Iditarod any differently. The question will be, will he push too fast and too hard too soon. He's done that in the past where his race looks very good only to have his team slow far too soon. Teams catch up and pass him. Nicolas seems to genuinely cares for his team, however, so they have yet to truly quit on him. They trust him. He trusts them. If they can make it come together, he can give those multi-champions a run for their money.

Pete Kaiser - He's a three time Kusko Champion. He's got a solid list of race stats. His team does better with wind and cold than those who have been in the warmer temps of South Central. Fans have been waiting to see Pete take a run at the championship for a while now. He has the goods to do it, he just has to make that magic happen. The Kusko is a tough race, Iditarod's just longer.

Ramey Smyth - He's back! After playing Mr. Mom while his wife could run the race, this year Smyth is once again driving the family team to Nome. The Smyth teams are known for their speed, especially in the last leg of the race. In 2012 when Ramey came in third he came out of no where to get there. I was working for the Seavey's then and the family was on their way to Nome when he made his move. I get a call from Dallas' family to ask how the GPS was looking and I said Ramey'd made a move and was gaining. Dead silence on the other end of the line. That's how dangerous a Smyth is to your race. Smyth's brother Cim just won the Tustumena 200 last month doing the same thing. Waiting for that opportune moment. You can't not have a Smyth on your list. They're just too dangerous to forget.

Wade Marrs - Who doesn't love Wade? I mean really! He's another younger musher who has consistently improved over his career. Some "experts" have said this is his year to make a move. Some have even said he's the only one with a real chance to out Dallas, Dallas. I don't know about all that, but he is doing a bang up job of getting attention with his team and driving ability. He's one of my dark horses as I'm just not convinced it's his time just yet, but anything is possible. Anything, especially when one considers the Fairbanks trail is a more equal playing field as no one really has the advantage of having run it over and over and over again learning every bump and turn.

Honorable Mentions:

I nearly put Noah Burmeister on my list, and honestly he probably should be on my top 10. He's another one of those mushers who just knows how to kick it into gear, plus he's got a great family history in this race.

Scott Smith is another musher that's on the rise. He's gained ground in the last couple of years. He cracked the top 10 last year. It will be interesting to see how he does this year. He's another one to watch. It's exciting to see names I don't automatically recognize come to the forefront. Makes me feel like this race is alive and well. Which seeing as how it's the 45th run of the race, that's a good feeling.

Hopefully I get to see all of these faces and more while I'm in Nome!

Which mushers do YOU have in YOUR top 10? Who are you cheering for? Agree/Disagree with my picks? Let me know your thoughts in the comments, and check back as I continue to blog about the 45th running of the Last Great Race!

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