Mushers of the Iditarod: What it Takes to Become a Champion

Mushers of the Iditarod: What it Takes to Become a Champion

Photo courtesy Jeff Schultz.

UPDATE: Dallas Seavey is now a three-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion after crossing the finish line in Nome early Wednesday morning ahead of his father, Mitch Seavey, who finished in second place. Dallas, 28, finished with a time of 8 days 18 hours 13 minutes 6 seconds. This most recent victory makes it Seavey's third in four years.

"It takes a whole team to get any of us here," Seavey said after winning the race. "As long as you take care of the dog team, make good decisions, good things will happen. Wins are a result of doing what we love."


Seavey took a 25-mile lead into the early Tuesday morning hours and never looked back as he made the march to Nome.


You can catch all of the action from this year's race on Iditarod Unleashed, beginning March 19 at 9 p.m. EST, and the 2015 Race Special on April 2 at 8 p.m. EST on The Sportsman Channel, the Official Network of the Iditarod.


seavey_f4With the 43rd Iditarod moved to Fairbanks for only the second time since the race's debut in 1973, every musher in Alaska faced even greater demands on their time the week before the race. I was surprised when Iditarod Champion Dallas Seavey just days before the start, graciously invited me over for a tour of his kennel.

Seavey's dog yard in Willow Alaska, consists of more than 100 dogs, two yurts, sheds, numerous trucks and sleds all over the yard. Even at 28 degrees, there's a notable smell of canine in the air in addition to the intense sense of excitement.


When I knocked on the 16- x 20-foot cabin, the door opened to a cascade of power tools, hardware, straps and cables choking the walls with four men working diligently around a dog sled made from … hockey sticks.seavey_7


Dallas Seavey, shown here with one of his dogs that lost a leg to angry moose, is the defending Iditarod champion and the youngest person to ever win the race at age 27.


I just looked at the sled and laughed, "So it really is made of hockey sticks!"


The youngest looking man lying on the floor said, "That's right, it's not a myth! I'm Dallas." The two-time Champion of the Iditarod (2012 and 2014), crawled out from under the sled to shake my hand. He stands 5-foot, 7-inches and couldn't weigh more than a 140 pounds. He is the youngest winner in race history and now is 27.

seavey_1


"The fact is, a rough trail isn't hard on the dogs; it's brutal on the sled and musher."


With just a few steps out of the cabin onto his dog lot, my fist question to Seavey was if the warmer weather and the move to Fairbanks would be a challenge.

"It really doesn't matter much. Mushers tend to obsess over the conditions, 'It's going to be too warm, or too cold, or it may blow.' All those things happen in almost every race. In my mind, it's all about the opportunity and adapting to the change. Fact is, you run every race with all those possibilities because they almost always happen," he said.

seavey_5


"I just looked at the sled and laughed, 'So it really is made of hockey sticks!'"


Trail conditions for 2015 are predicted to be less than ideal, with less snow, ice in some areas and even open water at the start in Fairbanks. Seavey added that the trail changes so fast, the forecasts are often wrong.

Last year social media exploded with videos of mushers running on ice laced, bone jarring rocky trails. Readers filled the net with comments ranging from the dogs were abused to the race should be stopped. Seavey shook his head and said, "Those conditions always happen. But few people talked about the amazingly perfect trail conditions that proceeded, allowing many mushers to set all time records.

"The fact is, a rough trail isn't hard on the dogs; it's brutal on the sled and musher. All the dogs want is to do is pull and run, and that's when they're the happiest," he said.

That brought Seavey to ask me a question. "So, tell me what you see in my dog yard?" I told him I was amazed by the diversity of dogs, mixed breeds, shapes and even hair coats.

seavey_2


"There are all kinds of mutts in my yard, but my mutts have heart, live to run, and love to pull. After that, the other key is what's inside."


"We keep more than one hundred dogs, and they are continually being evaluated into teams just like a Varsity and JV squads," he responded. "There are rookies, the 2- to 3-year-olds, and the veterans. It's all about performance and it gets tough because you can't pick a dog because of attachment, it has to be the dog's time."

Seavey said a big part of the training is the teammates and staff who make it all possible, including Australian Christian Turner who also runs the race with the Puppy Team.

"Those dogs are on the cusp of making it to my sled. Christian's dog team may actually run faster, but in most cases can't quite make the distances the veteran dogs can do, but they are so close," Seavey said, grinning.

Mandatory rests and trail vet checks are written into the rules and imperative for the dog's health.

"When you have the right dogs, it's more about the food," he said. "Of course they need to rest, but it's the perfect mix of food at the right time that keeps them running at top performance. A competitive dog needs about 14,000 calories a day and it's a complex mix of the perfect amounts of protein and fat that vary based on trail conditions and weather."

seavey_blue


"Mushers tend to obsess over the conditions, 'It's going to be too warm, or too cold, or it may blow.' All those things happen in almost every race. In my mind, it's all about the opportunity and adapting to the change."


Becoming a Champion

Earning a place at Seavey's sled reflects a dog's desire and capacity. "There are all kinds of mutts in my yard, but my mutts have heart, live to run, and love to pull. After that, the other key is what's inside," he said.

All of Seavey's dogs have their heart and lungs measured for capacity. It's the combination large powerful organs and desire that make these dogs champions.

"I'm just the coach, the dogs are the stars," he said. "In the end it's all about the bond established with your dog team. When conditions are bad and the dog can't see, they must trust you. I know they'll pull me through, and they know I won't give up and I'll guide them no matter what."

seavey_trail


In the end, the race is a test of some of the most vast, inhospitable and staggering wilderness in the world.


It was just that kind of trust that pushed Seavey the last 25 miles of the 2014 race, when one of the worst blows in race history obliterated the trial in extreme whiteout conditions — sidelining two veteran front-runners, Jeff King and Aliy Zirkle. The snow was so intense mushers couldn't see their dogs or even stand up.

Seavey crossed the finish line in Nome thinking he was third, certainly not first. His finish time set a race record of 8 days, 13 hours, 4 minutes and 19 seconds. Aliy Zirkle finished just two minutes behind Seavey taking second place for the third year in a row.

While staying in Olympics-level condition is essential, having a dedicated staff, landmark dogs, meticulous planning and a little luck all contribute to the moment a Champion crosses the finish line after nearly 1,000 miles of the stark Alaskan interior.

In the end, the race is a test of some of the most vast, inhospitable and staggering wilderness in the world.

See the full Iditarod Unleashed schedule:

iditarod_tsc_bannerYou can visit Seavey's Kennels in Willow, Alaska, just an hour and a half north of Anchorage to meet the dogs, the dedicated staff and family that make Dallas Seavey the champion he has become.

A good sled dog has heart, lives to run and loves to pull.

iditarod15_3

For Seavey, it's all about performance when picking a dog. Selecting a dog based on attachment can be a recipe for failure during "The Last Great Race on Earth."
To stay competitive, dogs in the Iditarod require roughly 14,000 calories of a complex mix of protein and fat that can vary based on trail conditions and weather. Additionally, mandatory rests and trail vet checks are written into the rules and imperative for the dog's health.
Trail conditions for the 2015 race are predicted to be less than ideal, with less snow, ice in some areas and even open water at the start in Fairbanks.
Line dogs will test the lead dog just before they leave. This is common and just a part being the top dog.
'œThe fact is, a rough trail isn't hard on the dogs; it's brutal on the sled and musher. All the dogs want is to do is pull and run, and that's when they're the happiest,' Seavey said.
In the end it's all about the bond established with your dog team.
All dogs at the race wear protective booties over their feet to keep them from being scraped up and to keep balls of ice from collecting around the footpad.
Each team is composed of twelve to sixteen dogs and at least six dogs must be in harness when crossing the finish line in Nome.
An entry-level job often is advertised as a 'œDog Handler,' and pay typically consists of a dry cabin, meals and about [imo-slideshow gallery=299],000 per-month. Responsibilities include picking up that poop twice a day and hauling water in five gallon buckets most of each day. Every musher on the planet has gone through this apprenticeship.

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